Britain’s remotest bus terminus

Wednesday 17th July 2019

IMG_3973.jpgIt’s been a bucket list ambition for a few years. Travel to mainland Britain’s most north westerly point at Cape Wrath and visit by far the remotest bus terminus alongside its famous lighthouse.

You can’t get more remote than the end of an isolated eleven mile single track road which has no other road connections. It starts at a jetty slipway served only by a passenger ferry, passes no civilisation for eleven miles, and ends at a lighthouse where just two people live in adjacent accommodation.IMG_3975.jpgArriving at Cape Wrath you’re further north than Moscow and Vladivostok. You’re closer to the Arctic Circle than you are to London. Head due west and you’ll reach Newfoundland.

I’ve long wanted to try the unique bus route which takes you to Cape Wrath. The trek entails a ten minute walk from the main A838 road, a couple of miles south of Durness, to the jetty where the summer only passenger ferry (Britain’s smallest passenger ferry) takes you across the Kyle of Durness from where the minibus begins the spectacular ride along the eleven mile winding and hilly, rough surface narrow track to Cape Wrath itself.

IMG_E4092.jpg‘Track’ is very much the description of this ‘road’. Built in the second half of the nineteenth century to take nothing wider than a horse and cart and service the lighthouse it’s still as narrow and to the same unmade up rough surface as its original state. It’s officially adopted by Highland Regional Council and known as the U70 road – it’s marked on Ordnance Survey maps as an unfenced track. Unsurprisingly Google’s camera car hasn’t driven it.

IMG_3993.jpgThere are passing places but many are now too soft or dangerous to use. It’s said there are only about five effective places along the entire eleven mile track where a minibus could pass. It’s essential therefore for the minibus drivers (there are often two buses in use with a third spare) to keep in touch by radio to make sure they don’t meet away from those passing places. Luckily there’s no other traffic.

It takes just over an hour to travel from the jetty to the lighthouse – that’s an average speed of around 10mph which reflects the track surface conditions and the skill of the drivers. Tyres don’t last more than one summer season.

IMG_4035.jpgThis journey has unique all over it. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere in Great Britain. It’s simply the best public transport experience I’ve ever had; and I’ve had a few. It breaks through the quirkiness scale barrier.

It beats anything I’ve enjoyed travelling through Britain’s most scenic National Parks. It beats the amazing journeys I’ve taken in the Outer Hebrides, Shetlands and Skye. It even beats the most spectacular railway journeys on the West Highland and Kyle of Lochalsh lines.

It’s simply the best.

The journey does need careful planning and an element of good luck to successfully accomplish it. Fortunately James, who runs the bus service, maintains a very helpful website which explains the logistics of the journey (VisitCapeWrath) setting out what to expect and he’s even available on the phone to give reassuring advice as I found a couple of times when I gave him a ring to check finer details.

The luck element includes for the ferry crossing: avoiding severe weather and an extreme low tide and for the minibus ride: the military not closing the road as the area is used for live bombing exercises (thankfully not usually during the summer), and more pertinently there being enough people at the time you want to travel to justify the minibus running – a minimum of six is desired.

It’s probably safest to stay overnight in Durness and take the first ferry across the Kyle of Durness in the morning at about 8.45-9.00am. That way you have more chances to make the journey during the day if the aforementioned criteria aren’t met. But that’s not easy when you’re a BusAndTrainUser on a public transport schedule to such a remote part of Britain with few options.

IMG_3857.jpgI took the 10:41am train from Inverness yesterday morning on the Far North Line (to Wick) as far as Lairg arriving 12:20pm. That departure is an easy connection from the Sleeper’s arrival from Euston although on this occasion I took the easyJet option the previous day from Gatwick (cheaper and quicker although I ended up paying for an expensive overnight stay in tourist filled Inverness on Monday).IMG_3863.jpgDurness based Far North Bus company runs the once a day route 806 providing a great connection from Lairg station at 12:25pm and the bus will wait a decent time in case the train runs late.IMG_3864.jpgRoute 806 is one of my favourite bus routes. The scenery is spectacular with lochs, mountains and forests and no more than two dozen houses spread along the 37 miles single track A838 road heading north westwards out of Lairg towards Durness.

IMG_3871.jpgMy friendly bus driver Danny was a bit concerned to hear my travel plans included Cape Wrath due to the exceptionally low tide that afternoon and I took his advice and rang the ferryman to check things out as we travelled along and Danny even kindly stopped the bus to improve mobile reception.

Previously, James the Cape Wrath minibus owner, had been a bit non committal about timings and when I got through to ferryman Malcolm he advised the next ferry was at 2pm and after that it would be 3.30pm but only if there were enough people travelling but at least he reassured me the tide would be OK. We were due to arrive at about 2.30pm.

In the meantime there was plenty of time to chat with Danny as he drove along this wonderfully scenic road from Lairg which after an hour reaches Scotland’s main south to north road from Ullapool to Durness at Laxford Bridge.

Here the minibus heads temporarily south down the A894 towards Ullapool to serve the village of Scourie. This dog-leg takes ten minutes before turning round and retracing the road back to Laxford Bridge and heading north until it reaches the turning westwards for Kinlochbervie Harbour which adds another ten minute detour before turning round and retracing back to the main road again. That’s forty minutes added to the journey to serve these two locations.

Yesterday I was the only passenger for the entire journey so the added mileage was unnecessary but passengers have boarded and alighted in both places on previous trips, so you never know. Returning to Lairg on the bus this morning five passengers boarded in Scourie.

After another twenty minutes heading north we reached the turning for the Kyle of Durness ferry and Danny very kindly drove along to the jetty itself rather than drop me at the road end as he was still concerned whether the ferry would be running and I might end up stranded.

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It was about 2.35pm and no ferry was in sight and the rather unhelpful information board said the next ferry would depart at 2pm!

IMG_3885.jpgI began to think my luck had run out and the ferry had packed up beaten by a low tide and paucity of passengers. But then a small boat appeared in the distance across the narrow channel of water stretching across the Kyle and I also spotted a minibus coming down the hillside to the jetty on the far side. It turned out Malcolm uses the time in between the infrequent short ferry crossings to do some fishing but he was now back in ferry mode.

He brought back four passengers and a couple of bikes but I’m not sure how much fish! This was about 3pm and Malcolm explained he’d be crossing again at 3.30pm if there were six people by then and promptly drove off in his van.

IMG_3894.jpgI was pleased and relieved to see a young holidaying couple from Northern Ireland and their lovely dog had now arrived so we were halfway to our quorum and when Malcolm returned at 3.30pm miraculously three more passengers had arrived and we set sail.IMG_3899.jpgIMG_3901.jpgIt really was an extreme low tide; halfway across skilfully navigating the very narrow channel of water Malcolm asked us all to sit at the front end of the boat as it had started to ground! Luckily that worked and we arrived at the far side jetty just as another minibus came down the track with a dozen returning passengers.IMG_3904.jpgTwo of our number decided they’d enjoy a walk rather than take the minibus but Stuart, our minibus driver, was happy to take just the four of us and dog on the journey to Cape Wrath. Thank goodness!IMG_3910.jpgBut not before Stuart checked the position of the other minibus which as it happened wasn’t far away returning empty to the jetty so we waited for that driver to arrive and then we were off.IMG_3921.jpgThe area to the Cape has been officially dubbed Europe’s ‘Last Great Wilderness’ and you soon see why. The steep gradient as the narrow track winds its way up from the jetty is just a foretaste of the amazing journey ahead.

IMG_3925.jpgSmall marker posts along the track count down each of the eleven miles to the lighthouse. After a couple of miles you reach the beginning of the Cape Wrath Bombardment Range with its high profile warning signs and barrier arm to prevent any further movement when the military are practising manoeuvres by firing live ammunition and dropping live bombs. It’s the only range in Western Europe where thousand pound bombs are live fired and any NATO member can use it.IMG_3995.jpgStuart pointed out a crater just a few feet from the track as we passed by which appeared after a bombing exercise making you realise how necessary those barriers are.IMG_3941.jpgThe Ministry of Defence own one of the very few properties alongside the track and have refurbished it for use as a base and accommodation during exercises.IMG_4030.jpgIMG_4029.jpgOne other property we passed is used as a summer home, but Stuart observed sometimes only for a couple of weeks a year and one or two other properties have clearly been abandoned.

There are a few bridges to carry the track over small rivers luckily just wide enough to take our minibus. “It showed great foresight by the original track builders” Stuart quipped.IMG_4026.jpgIMG_3997.jpgThe newest bridge was built by the Royal Engineers and Royal Marines as recently as 1981. Before that minibuses had to navigate a ford at this point. It’s said in the early days of the minibus service it was common practice for the driver along with a willing passenger to wade out into the river with a rope strung between them marking the width of the vehicle and if the water stayed below knee level it was safe for the minibus to cross.IMG_4039.jpgAfter about seven miles you get a view of the almost hidden beautiful Kearvaig Bay on the northern coastline.

IMG_3989.jpgThis must be one of the most gorgeous bays that’s rarely used save by a few intrepid walkers including the two women who opted to walk from the ferry and were still heading there when we passed them on our return (you might spot them below) – but it looked as though it would defintely be worth their effort.IMG_4034.jpgContinuing on to Cape Wrath the track enters what is its most exciting and challenging section. With four miles to go we leave the firing range and cross Kearvaig Bridge offering just four inches clearance for our minibus.

The track continues to follow the contours of the landscape but at the tenth mile the track is carved out of the valley side incorporating a sharp drop to the nearside and a soft verge. This section is called the ‘Wall of Death’. Stuart’s driving skills made it look easy but I wouldn’t like to try it!

IMG_3947.jpgThe track finally reaches the Cape Wrath lighthouse and the end of the journey.

IMG_3953.jpgIMG_3956.jpgJames has organised things so you have about 45 minutes to wander around and take in the sheer wonderment of reaching this exposed extreme north western tip of the country …. by bus. There are spectacular views towards the Arctic Circle northwards…

IMG_3969.jpg…. and westwards to the North Atlantic…

IMG_3981.jpgThe lighthouse has only been automated since 1998 and now lies deserted except for John and his daughter who live in the adjacent somewhat ramshakle property.

IMG_3978.jpgIMG_3979.jpgThey provide refreshments and a few souvenirs in the Ozone cafe in their property and you have to marvel at the logistics they surmount of no mains water, gas, electricity or sewage connections, nor mobile phone signal yet running a small commercial business reliant on the small number of tourists who make the journey and then buy something!

IMG_3957.jpgIMG_3976.jpgIMG_3977.jpgThey bring all their supplies, including water, from Durness once a week where their post is also kept. Rainwater is harvested for the toilet and washing – there’s a notice in the bathroom to use sparingly!

We passed John’s daughter about four miles along the track from the jetty where she can just pick up a mobile signal so was spending the afternoon online shopping on the back seat of her car!

IMG_4036.jpgBack at the lighthouse John has an interesting collection of abandoned vehicles and we passed another minibus he used to use, parked up along the track and awaiting the fitting of a part after it broke down some time ago.

IMG_3970.jpgIMG_4010.jpgThere were also a few sheep who apparently now roam wild as they’ve learnt to out manoeuvre the farmer’s sheep dog by escaping to precarious ledges on the cliffs and are now well separated from the flock on the other side of the firing range.IMG_3983.jpgThe lighthouse’s massive foghorn hasn’t sounded for many years but you can just imagine the sound it used to make on a night of thick fog and blowing a force ten gale as often relaid on Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast!

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Our journey back to the jetty was as enjoyable as the outward by seeing all the spectacular views from a different angle including steep inclines up instead of down and Stuart continuing with his fascinating commentary.

IMG_4041.jpgMalcolm was waiting for us at the jetty as we arrived soon after 6.30pm and Stuart left the minibus overnight alongside the other one already parked up and joined us for the trip back over the Kyle of Durness which was now much faster flowing with the tide well in.IMG_4066.jpg

IMG_4061.jpgStuart’s driving day was done having completed three return trips and he kindly gave me a lift into Durness to save the lengthy walk. This is his eighth season of driving one of the Cape Wrath minibuses and he obviously enjoys it and provides a truly great experience for visitors.

IMG_4069.jpgWe chatted on the way back to Durness and he agreed with my thoughts that there’s huge potential to increase business and make the ‘visitor experience’ even better. Publicising a definitive timetable for departures on James’s website and at the jetty would be reassuring as would booking tickets online and taking bank cards. The current cash only return ticket price is £7.50 paid on the ferry and £13 on the minibus.

IMG_4073.jpgI got the impression Malcolm independently guards his revenue stream and suspect he would resist agreeing to a combined ticket and perhaps making things a bit more streamlined.

I’ve thought about it a bit more since yesterday and now think the quirkinesses of the whole arrangement is part of its charm, and who’d want the remoteness of the Cape to become overrun with tourists; in fact I hesitate at writing too effusive praise here about just how fantastic and brilliant an experience it was for fear too many readers will follow in my tracks.

Luck was on my side yesterday – I was out of the military practice season, the weather was stunningly idyllic, that low tide wasn’t too low, the departure time of 3.30pm just fitted my schedule and five fellow passengers turned up just at the right time.

Perfect.

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Absolutely perfect.

IMG_3964.jpgI don’t think I’m going to trounce this travel experience any time soon.

Roger French

PS You might be wondering how James gets the three minibuses over to the Cape with no road access and only a tiny pedestrian ferry. They’re taken over at the beginning of each season and brought back at the end on a special motorised pontoon barge which crosses when the sea conditions are just right – a calm, wind free day. Diesel fuel is brought over as needed in 25-litre drums during the season. The photo below is taken from a splendid guidebook on sale for just £3 by David M Hird and well worth buying if you’re thinking of visiting.IMG_E4104.jpg

A day in Stranraer and The Rhins

Thursday 6th June 2019

IMG_9889.jpgIt may not rank as high as the West Highland Line, the Kyle of Lochalsh Line or the Far North Line in the great Scottish Scenic Rail Lines stakes but ScotRail have rightly designated the line down to Stranraer as a Scenic Rail Journey and very justifiably so too.

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 09.51.10.pngWhile I was in Glasgow on Monday in between consecutive night sleeper train travels I took the opportunity to take another ride down to Stranraer and remind myself why I ranked it thirteenth in My Hundred Best Train Journeys when compiling that list at the end of last year.

IMG_9883.jpgIt’s not that Stranraer itself is a must-visit destination, sadly the town is well past its prime now the Belfast ferry has moved further up the coast, leaving desolation where lorries and cars once formed their orderly queues before boarding.

IMG_9887 (1).jpgIt’s also not that the first part of the journey south from Glasgow is particularly scenic either. It’s not.

It’s not that the trains are spectacular either; they’re unrefurbished Class 156s similar to those that could be found on the top rated scenic lines in the West Highlands and Far North prior to those being revamped and improved. But they do offer tables and great window views, so I’m not complaining.

IMG_9894.jpgThe line’s scenic reputation comes from the eighty minute ride south of Ayr on the single track section through the lovely stations at Maybole, Girvan, and Barhill.

IMG_9896.jpgIt’s not that there are lochs. Nor mountains. Nor huge spectacular valleys.

IMG_9898.jpgIt’s just mile after mile of stunning Scottish countryside with rolling hills, rivers and plenty of lush green landscape.

IMG_9892.jpgThe Stranraer timetable is not particularly attractive either. It’s an approximate two-hourly frequency but only three journeys start in Glasgow (six hours apart at 0808, 1413 and 1813) with most of the other journeys starting in Kilmarnock. Even those Glasgow journeys are bettered by taking a later train on the more direct route to Ayr, saving twenty minutes, and having a handy 6 minute connection in Ayr to the earlier leaving Stranraer train that went the slower route via Kilmarnock.

As my sleeper arrived late into Glasgow at 0815 on Monday morning I had no option but to catch the 0830 to Ayr and connect there with the Stranraer train that had left Glasgow earlier at 0808 via Kilmarnock.

Sadly though, Monday morning was not a good start to the week for ScotRail with a number of incidents including cows on the line to Ayr necessitating slow cautionary progress resulting in a 16 minute late arrival in Ayr thereby missing the Stranraer train which hadn’t been held for the sake of leaving ten minutes later if it had waited for us.

IMG_9815.jpgStill, on the upside I had a bit of time to look at the major work now in progress to renovate and make safe the hotel above Ayr station which began as an emergency measure a few months ago when the building was suddenly declared dangerous necessitating the complete closure of the station and rail lines in the area at great inconvenience.

IMG_9813.jpgIt turned out eight of us bound for Stranraer were left stranded in Ayr and in view of the two hour wait until the next train staff summoned an eight seater taxi which arrived in twenty minutes and we set off for the eighty minute drive down to Stranraer, which aside from the wait, took about the same journey time as the train.

IMG_9816.jpgI’d travelled this route before on Stagecoach’s route 60/360 and it’s a great scenic ride with some lovely coastal views contrasting with the more inland route taken by the train, so it made for an interesting and welcome variation.

I’d never ventured west of Stranraer before and decided to put that right on this visit and explore the hammer head shape every geography student is familiar with when drawing the coastline of Great Britain.

screen-shot-2019-05-31-at-15.41.57This headland peninsular is officially called The Rhins but apparently the locals don’t call it that. It protrudes out towards Belfast in the south western corner of Dumfries and Galloway.

IMG_E9821.jpgLuckily when I was in Dumfries earlier this year I took a photograph of a bus map displayed in bus shelters in the town as in the frustrating absence of finding a bus map online to refer to, this proved invaluable in working out which bus routes to travel on to explore both ends and both sides of The Rhins. Update is I found the online map after publishing this post thanks to a helpful reader – see below for more explanation.

IMG_0360.jpgThe timing worked perfectly to travel on the 1155 one-return-journey four-day-a-week departure on the McCullochs Coaches operated circular route 412 from Stranraer to Leswalt, Envie and Galdenoch (see map above).

IMG_9825.jpgThis was a lovely thirty-five minute run with just me and one other passenger who alighted in Leswalt leaving just me to enjoy the trip round. The route was slightly curtailed due to a road closure but it was still an enjoyable and quiet rural ride.

IMG_9827.jpgThe Fiat minibus has an interesting staggered 2+1 seat layout ….

IMG_9826.jpg…. and a livery which seems to be the base colours for the ‘south west of Scotland transport partnership’ brand as I saw another bus wearing similar colours and sporting a logo to that effect on route 500 to Dumfries operated by Stagecoach.

IMG_9886.jpgWhen I’d investigated the SWesttrans.org.uk website previously it just linked to a collection of minutes and agendas of Partnership Board Meetings. Most odd. However, I’m pleased to update following publishing this report someone has kindly pointed out the link to “Service Information” on the website which has a further link to Dumfries & Galloway timetables as well as a link under “Sustainable Travel” to the bus map referred to above. Why do authorities make it so hard to find these things?!

Back in Stranraer I switched to one of Stagecoach’s routes in the area, the 407, which runs all the way down to the southern end of The Rhines at Drummore.

IMG_9879.jpgThis eight journey a day route is shared with McCullochs Coaches who operate two school journeys and Wigtownshire Community Transport who operate a journey at 1700. We took nine passengers as far as Sandhead which is half way along the 44 minute journey (see map above) but the second half was just me on board although we brought two back from Drummore and another half dozen from Sandhead on the return.

IMG_9881.jpgStagecoach also operate route 408 up to Kirkolm to the north of The Rhines but sadly the 1410 departure didn’t arrive, or more possibly the driver of the 407 when he got back to Stranraer st 1402 didn’t change the blind. There’s one other route, the 387 to Portpatrick on the west coast which is shared between Stagecoach, DGC Buses and Wigtown Community Transport and a convoluted town route in Stranraer, the 365, which Stagecoach also operate.

Another quirky bus feature of Stranraer is the Ulsterbus garage a long way from its normal Northern Ireland territory but historically here for the Glasgow to Belfast service via the ferry, which as highlighted already, has moved further north.

IMG_9820.jpgHaving enjoyed the scenic rides up and down the ‘hammer head’ I decided to head back to Glasgow on the 1500 ScotRail departure from Stranraer; the scenery as far as Ayr was as gorgeous as ever and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

IMG_9891.jpgFrustratingly this train arrives Ayr at exactly the same time a fast train leaves for Glasgow making a connection impossible so I continued to Kilmarnock (photographed below) where there’s a more convenient three minute connection across adjacent platforms to a train passing through from Carlisle and which gets into Glasgow at 1737, whereas if the connection had been possible in Ayr it would have meant an earlier 1710 arrival into Glasgow.

IMG_9906If ScotRail are serious about promoting the scenic delights of the Stranraer line I would strongly recommend reviewing those tight and missed connections and promoting the timetable better – for example whereas the Ayr trains which offer either tight or missed connections are shown in the Stranraer leaflet; the Kilmarnock connections aren’t.

Back in Glasgow I was impressed that Caledonian Sleeper was ready and waiting to board passengers at 2200, the promised time, and it wasn’t long before I was in bed and only vaguely aware we were on our way at the scheduled departure at 2340 back to London Euston. Everything went well until around 0300 when we made a wakening emergency stop in the Preston area. It turned out we’d lost power but after five minutes or so everything had been successfully rebooted and we were on our way again arriving into Euston slightly ahead of schedule .IMG_9944.jpgAnnoyingly my shower didn’t work (again) along with the toilet flush packing up during the night and only a trickle of water from the basin tap in the morning. I experienced the same plumbing problems on my inaugural journey at the beginning of last month which indicates snagging issues are still very much to the fore on the new sleeper carriages.

In fact chatting to staff, they confirmed all is not going well, with continuing porblems and staff consequently taking flack from disgruntled passengers who’ve paid a handsome price for these en-suite extras. Sadly some staff are apparently having to go off sick due to the level of stress. It’s obviously a trying time for a Serco and Caledonian Sleeper and although disappointing, it’s a sensible decision to postpone converting the Highlander route to the new coaches until these problems are ironed out. I hear 7th July is the latest date envisgaed for their introduction.

Someone must be seriously losing out financially due to these delays and problems as the uptake in revenue to justify the new coaches must be well below budget as well as compensation being paid out for failing to deliver. Let’s hope all is resolved soon.

Roger French

PS: yes that timetable case in Stranraer, captured in a photo above, was a bit disheveled…!

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Breich, Borders, Bike Buses and Berwick

Friday 3rd May 2019

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Finding myself in Glasgow at 7.30am yesterday morning (after my inaugural Caledonian Sleeper Mark 5 journey) I thought it would be an opportunity to continue the first-time experiences by taking a ride on the recently completed electrified ScotRail line to Edinburgh via Shotts and then catch a Borders Buses X62 down to Galashiels on which three new bike friendly Enviro400 double deckers have just been introduced. A trip on Borders Buses route 60 on to Berwick-upon-Tweed before returning south with LNER would complete the day’s travelling.

IMG_6462.jpgIt was unfortunate my Sleeper’s scheduled arrival into Glasgow Central at 0722 just missed the 0713 departure to Edinburgh via Shotts as that’s the only eastbound journey which calls at Breich at 0806, unsurprisingly one of Scotland’s least used stations (pictured below).

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 15.19.45.pngIndeed, passenger numbers were so few (on average one passenger boards a week) and such extensive work required for electrification at the station (estimated cost: £1.4 million) that Network Rail proposed the station’s closure, subject to consultation, in summer 2017.

IMG_9500.jpgNetwork Rail pointed out the station is some distance from the village of Breich (population: 300) and there’s little prospect of growing patronage. 

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 17.26.56.pngBut to great surprise and in the crazy world of railway funding, Network Rail did an about-turn agreeing to keep the station open and spending the money for the necessary upgrade. Not only that but ScotRail are forgoing the opportunity to speed up end-to-end journey times of their new electric stopping trains on this line by introducing a train stopping at Breich hourly (two-hourly on Sundays) from 19th May. Quite remarkable. Breich must be a leading contender to be the least used station with the most frequent train service, and the most expensive shelter and footbridge ever installed, which I spotted as my train sped through.

IMG_6489.jpgThere are two trains an hour between Glasgow and Edinburgh via Shotts; one’s a stopper (at eighteen stations along the route) and the other runs fast with just five stops. I caught the 0803 fast train which arrived in Edinburgh at 0911.

IMG_6468.jpgScotRail are already running at least one new Class 385 electric train on this route but I was pleased to have one last ride on a diesel while I still can, as the route should be fully electric when the new timetable begins in a fortnight.

IMG_6474.jpgBefore leaving Glasgow Central it was also nice to spot two Class 314 trains in the original smart SPT livery as these are becoming less common now they’re being withdrawn.

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After a short break in Edinburgh I wandered over to the Bus/Coach station to catch Borders Buses X62 as I’d been reading about the impressive new ADL Enviro400 double deck buses just introduced on the route with facilities to carry bicycles.

However, rather foolishly I hadn’t properly researched the X62 runs every half hour between Edinburgh, Peebles, Galashiels and Melrose on a five and a half hour cycle for each bus meaning eleven buses are needed to run the service. With only three new bike buses it perhaps wasn’t surprising a standard single deck bus pulled into the bus station for my 1020 departure.

IMG_6519.jpgI wasn’t the only one to have misunderstood Borders Buses’ positive PR messages about the new buses, which received widespread coverage in the media. As we headed out of Edinburgh a cyclist attempted to board the bus and our driver explained there was no chance on this bus.

IMG_6523.jpgHe would have a long wait too as the next bike bus we passed heading north into Edinburgh was down at Peebles at 1120 which wouldn’t be heading back south until the 1245 departure from Edinburgh some two and a half hours and after four more non-bike buses later.

IMG_6524.jpgAll credit to Borders Buses for picking up on my Tweet about that and providing a link to their website where there’s a list of journeys each day on which the three bike buses are allocated out of the eleven buses on the route.

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From this I worked out I’d arrive into Galashiels just before a bike bus was due to arrive heading towards Edinburgh with a five minute layover.

IMG_6547.jpgThis gave me the opportunity to take a good look at the bus, thanks to the driver who showed me around and gave an explanation of how the two bikes are stored – one goes one way, and the other the other way, and both are strapped in. There’s a short video here on YouTube showing how it’s done.

IMG_6543.jpgThe buses are very impressive with comfortable and attractive seating, some tables, the usual usb and WiFi and have a tasteful and attractive Best Impressions designed livery.

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IMG_6542.jpgI was pleasantly surprised how slick the bike racks are; much more so than those which Stagecoach have installed on the open top buses on route 599 in the Lake District.

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IMG_3147.jpgThere’s a bit of a trend to include bike racks on buses; I spotted one on Stagecoach’s X74 between Glasgow and Dumfries a few weeks ago, but there they’re stored in the lockers under the top deck, which is perhaps more appropriate.

IMG_0266.jpgI do wonder whether bikes inside buses will lead to issues, especially while only a small percentage of the buses on a long inter-urban route have the facility. Apparently one older double deck on the X62 is to be converted and it’s also been pointed out you can use the Borders Buses App and refer to the bus tracking facility which shows where buses are in real time. You have to click on each icon to find the bike buses / they’re the ones with the word “Bike”.

But this is hardly very convenient (having to play a game like Battleships and clicking on icons until you find one saying ‘Bike’), and what do you do if there’s a couple of hours gap before one of these buses comes along?

The Company’s PR blurb says the new buses are “designed with commuters, local and touring cyclists in mind. The bike friendly service is aimed at minimising car journeys buy encouraging motorists to ditch the car and use bike and bus as an alternative and greener way to travel”.

So if I live just outside Peebles some way off the X62 route and work in Edinburgh, I cycle into Peebles and put my bike on the bus. Sounds a great idea. Except looking at next week’s vehicle allocation, commendably available online, buses are on different peak hour journeys on Monday and Friday compared to Tuesday to Thursday, so I’d need to switch my travel pattern accordingly. And then I’d be taking a chance two other “alternative and greener” commuters hadn’t got to the bike spaces before me.

It explains online that there are plans to increase the number of bike spaces from two to four by the end of the month; I’m puzzled how this will be achieved, but surely this is going to impinge on the space for buggies and shopping trolleys – something many operators are already finding a big challenge alongside ensuring a wheelchair, and even two wheelchairs can be carried if needed.

IMG_6544.jpgI’m also thinking it must be a real palaver if the bike on the inside, nearest the window, needs to be extracted before the one on the gangway side.

So, in summary, courageous decision to give it a try, but it’s a “NO” from me.

On the other hand it’s a big fat “YES” from me for the X62 route and its truly splendid scenery along the way. Once you get out of Edinburgh heading down to Peebles the countryside starts to become truly spectacular.

The Scottish Borders really are a brilliant area to explore and Borders Buses run some excellent routes including the less frequent 60 from Galashiels over to Berwick-Upon-Tweed which I caught after the X62.

IMG_6553.jpgIn fact from Peebles all the way through to east of Melrose on the X62 and 60 we travelled alongside the picturesque River Tweed and the scenery was magnificent.

IMG_6533.jpgI would imagine it’s even more spectacular from the top deck so made a note to return another time, use the App’s tracker and travel on one of the new buses … but I think I’ll leave my bike at home!

IMG_6557.jpgMy trip ended with a ride south down the East Coast Main Line with LNER. It was one of those journeys where you immediately spot the ‘family with a young kid from hell’ around a table for four in First Class. One of those families where it appears essential to have a tablet playing some inane tune or repetitive noise at full volume with associated game visuals to keep the child amused. The Train Manager between Berwick and Newcastle did her best on a few occasions to request them to turn the volume down, but was rudely told “what do you want a screaming child or the noise of this”. The relieving TM at Newcastle gave them a wide berth all the way to Kings Cross. I got out my headphones (kept for such times, which I’m finding regretfully are becoming more common on my travels) which successfully blocked out the noise and set about blog writing, magazine reading and window gazing.

We arrived ino Kings Cross just a few minutes late, passing my connecting Brighton bound Thameslink train between Stevenage and Finsbury Park so a quick transfer over to St Pancras and job done. Home for a few days rest. Blogging will resume in a week or so.

Roger French

Long live the HST

Monday 18th March 2019

During my initial trip on a brand new Class 800 train when they began running between Paddington and Bristol/Cardiff at the end of 2017 my first thought was to lament the end of the luxurious comfortable seats GWR had introduced in first class in HST trains the new IEP units were replacing.

IMG_2056.jpgI needn’t have worried. Fast forward nineteen months and here I am writing this very blog sitting in one of those self same seats in amazing luxurious comfort on one of the first-to-be-refurbished HSTs forming ScotRail’s ambitious ‘Inter7City’ project.

IMG_2033.jpgLike everything rolling stock wise on the railways this project is running hopelessly late due to ambitious timescales by the company doing the refurbs and no doubt more work being found to be done once the units are stripped back.

I’d been trying to track down the sole unit so far in passenger service, 43169, since its introduction last October but been thwarted on previous trips north of the border by initial spasmodic appearances in service between Edinburgh and Aberdeen and my living nearly 500 miles away!

IMG_2035.jpgHearing a second refurbished unit had finally arrived for service with ScotRail seemed like a good opportunity to head up to Edinburgh and bag a ride. ScotRail have helpfully tweeted the train diagram for the refurbed train which includes an intensive day’s running between Edinburgh and Aberdeen and I settled on catching the 1230 from Edinburgh and the return journey leaving Aberdeen at 1600 this afternoon.

When Thameslink began running intensified services through the ‘core’ a wag observed it’s possible a delay down on the Brighton line could have repercussions through the tightly pathed East Coast line with knock on effects as far as Aberdeen or Inverness. I had a slight taste of that phenomenon this morning when a Horsham to Peterborough train in front of my 0800 Kings Cross to Edinburgh came to a stop north of Huntingdon for twenty minutes which, to cut a long story short, meant a 16 minute late arrival into Edinburgh at 1236 and missing my admittedly tight connection for Aberdeen.

IMG_1946.jpgStill, at least it gave me an opportunity to make a direct comparison between a two and a half hour journey up to Aberdeen on a Class 170 and a return journey south on the refurbished HST.

IMG_2007.jpgThe first thing to note is you just wouldn’t believe the HST is over twice the age of the 170 which first appeared at the turn of this century rather than the mid to late 1970s birth of the HST. It just goes to show brand new is not necessarily always better (especially when it comes to trains).

The HST is in a different league power wise to the turbo charged 170s. I’m no expert in engineering matters but as a passenger I know when I’m on a classy train suited to ‘inter city’ work and when I’m on a train which never quite seems man enough for the job.

The comparison between the quality ambiance offered by travelling first class in the HST compared to the 170 is stark. Aside from the already mentioned seats in the HST you have your own carriage with 32 seats well spaced out and all nicely lined up with windows together with a refreshment buffet area and luggage rack. This adjoins a small galley kitchen where hot soups and drinks are prepared and sandwiches kept as well as a stylish counter for those travelling standard class to make their purchases.

IMG_2044.jpgIMG_2067.jpgWhereas in a Class 170 you’re cooped up in one of nine seats at either end of the train immediately behind the driver’s cab with the associated traction buzzing noises. It doesn’t shout luxury. It must be an optical illusion but a Class170 just seems narrower than an HST too! The seats certainly are.

IMG_2010.jpgOn the way up to Aberdeen it took the trolley man almost an hour to reach me in the front first class compartment and offered complimentary tea/coffee and a biscuit/cake. On the HST one of two refreshment hosts was passing through the first class carriage almost immediately on leaving Aberdeen offering hot soup with a roll as well as tea/coffee and sandwiches in addition to encouraging a visit to the help yourself buffet area for a wide selection of biscuits, cold drinks and fruit pots. If I’d travelled at breakfast I’d have been offered a hot filled roll, porridge or other delights.

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IMG_2048.jpgI took the opportunity to also sample standard class seats which have been retrimmed into a smart ScotRail moquette and although are still to the high back design used in GWR days are comfortable by modern day seat standards with adequate leg room. More so than the Class 170.

IMG_2073.jpgIMG_2072.jpgI didn’t count but there must also be many more standard class seats with three whole carriages worth compared to the three coaches in a Class 170 set which also includes the two first class sections at either end. There also seemed to be many more tables in an HST – I counted ten in one coach with slightly fewer in the carriage with the accessible toilet.

A cyclist on board mentioned there is only a rack for two cycles and when they’re both in situ it’s a bit tricky to access one to remove it. He didn’t reckon there are any spaces in the power car.

IMG_2070.jpgObviously the refurbishment has included sliding doors and finally doing away with opening windows to lean through to open the door by the outside handle – which is a bit of a shame but inevitable in today’s safety conscious world.

IMG_2071.jpgTaking an HST south from Aberdeen, as I’m doing now, is nothing new. LNER (and it’s predecessors) have been running them on this line for decades, but what is revolutionary and hugely welcome is ScotRail have obviously given a lot of thought into how to make train travel really feel good with great attention to detail in this refurbishment notwithstanding these trains are forty odd years old.

IMG_2053.jpgThe eventual plan is to run refurbished HSTs between Aberdeen, as well as Inverness, to and from Edinburgh and Glasgow taking in Dundee, Perth and Stirling along the way (hence the 7 cities). Based on today’s experience I’m confident it will be a huge success in attracting more passengers and creating a great impression of train travel.

Sadly it looks like it’s going to be quite a while before all the refurbishments are completed, but it will definitely be well worth the wait.

Roger French