Ninety round Glasgow

Monday 2nd September 2019

IMG_E9366.jpg

I’ve ridden round Birmingham (on both NatEx’s inner and outer circular bus routes); round Leicester with Centrebus; round Coventry before that city’s circular route (neatly numbered 360) got the chop so I thought it was time to take a ride on First Glasgow’s route 90, which almost completes an inner circuit of the city from Braehead Shopping Centre, west of the city centre close to the south bank of the Clyde round to Partick on the north side.

Screen Shot 2019-09-06 at 14.58.03.png

Route 90 is not one of First Glasgow’s high profile city routes. Running only every half an hour it doesn’t warrant a bright splash of colour on a bespoke route livery; it qualifies only for a grey colour on First Glasgow’s useful colour coded network route map. Most vehicles used on the route today were Wright bodied Volvo single deckers, but I did spot a couple of double decks and one single deck with some vinyl remnants from the old Simplicity branding extolling frequencies of every ten minutes.

While route 90 might not be high frequency or high profile, as I found today, it’s certainly busy.

We left Braehead shopping centre quietly enough at 13:20 with just one passenger in addition to myself, but we soon picked up a handful more as we stopped by the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) – oddly not actually in the bus station itself – but alongside it.

It’s a bit of an endurance to ride the full 2 hour 16 minute journey, especially as we got significantly behind schedule; at one point being around half an hour late. Not particularly for any noticeable reason, just being busy. We finally arrived into Partick bus station, coincidentally with just one other passenger on board in addition to myself, at 16:04 instead of the scheduled arrival of 15:36.

In the meantime 145 passengers had got on at 44 bus stops, stopping at 20 more where passengers alighted. We carried one wheelchair and eight buggies, two at the same time as the wheelchair (one was folded).

Busiest bus stop was Forge shopping centre to the east of the city in Parkhead where 17 boarded while six adults and nine school children heading home got on at a stop in Springburn.

Aside from myself the longest journey undertaken by one passenger was from the QEUH to Celtic Park taking around 70 minutes. There was a lot of short journey lengths indicating the success of a circular route; our maximum load was 24 which was reached on three separate occasions with around 72 different passengers.

It’s an interesting way to observe the quite diverse nature of Glasgow’s inner suburbs and the people who live and work there. I don’t think at any point on the route we were more than 5 miles from the city centre – and that extreme was Braehead at the beginning – most of the route taken is only about 2-3 miles from the centre. . In addition to the QEUH we passed Glasgow Royal Infirmary, as well as Ibrox Park, Hamilton Park and Celtic Park. We passed through areas such as Govan where shopping streets are sadly dominated by shuttered up vacant shops and Hillhead with its well-to-do thriving cafe culture. We also passed a number of nice looking parks including the Botanic Gardens. We crossed the Clyde in the east as well as passing over and under a number of rail lines.

IMG_9301.jpg

It was a fascinating afternoon and I learned a lot about Glasgow I didn’t previously know, just from observing.

After a brief refreshment stop in Partick I caught one of First Glasgow’s flagship routes back to Braehead – the high profile route 77 running every 10 minutes from the city centre via Partick and the Clyde Tunnel, to QEUH, Baerhead and Glasgow Airport. It runs every 10 minutes as far as Braehead and half hourly beyond there to the Airport.

IMG_9319.jpg

Rather than 2 hours and 44 minutes, the 77 would get me back to Baerhead in just 18 minutes.

IMG_9356.jpg

Except I got off at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital to try the Stagecoach operated X19 Fastlink into the city centre via high profile bus lanes.

IMG_9355.jpg

IMG_9353.jpgThe branding is a bit lacklustre but there’s been serious investment in bus shelters and real time signs as well as the segregated bus lanes.

IMG_9361.jpgIMG_9359.jpg

It was an impressive fast ride even through the evening peak and brought an interesting afternoon to an end.

Roger French

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.

IMG_4138.jpg

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

IMG_4216.jpg

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.

IMG_4222.jpg

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.

IMG_4151.jpg

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…

IMG_4332.jpg

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

A spectacular bus ride to Widicombe in the Moor

Saturday 6th July 2019

I thought it was high time I ticked off more bus routes on my lengthy ‘to do’ list compiled from the many suggestions kindly passed on from various sources, not least Twitter, which qualify for the accolade of being the Best of British Bus Routes. So for the next few days that’s my mission beginning this weekend in Devon….

IMG_2542.jpg….. with the Summer Saturday only route 271 from Newton Abbot to Widicombe.

It’s operated by Country Bus – the trading name of Alansway Coaches who have built up a sizeable amount of tendered bus work in this part of Devon from their base on the Heathfield Industrial Estate just outside Newton Abbot.

IMG_2536.jpgStand in Newton Abbot’s ‘bus station’ (bus stops either side of the bus only Sherborne Road) for a short time and aside from Stagecoach it soon becomes obvious just how dominant Country Bus has become in the local market.

IMG_2518.jpgRoute 271 runs four times a day but only on Saturdays from June to mid September – that’s sixteen days in all. One minibus covers the schedule.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 19.03.11.pngInterestingly no concessionary passes are valid on this route, it being deemed by Devon County Council who fund the service, to be a tourist route. Instead pass holders get a £1 discount on the round trip fare of £5, paying just £4. My experience this afternoon indicated this policy certainly hasn’t deterred seniors from travelling. Indeed, I suspect they value the service even more by handing over cash to travel. Two seniors on my journey paid up, like me, to just enjoy the trip right around the circuit which takes an hour and forty-five minutes. It’s certainly well worth it.

Journeys leave Newton Abbot railway station at 08:55, 10:55, 13:40 and 16:10 calling at the bus station in Sherborne Road five minutes later.

The route then follows the Stagecoach half hourly route 39 north to Bovey Tracey about twenty minutes from Newton Abbot on the A382 towards Mortonhampstead. Bovey Tracey’s a delightful small town come large village on the River Bovey and buses do a complete circuit of the residential area to the east of its commercial centre in both directions.

IMG_E2670.jpg

Route 271 then heads off to the west along the B3387 to Widicombe in the Moor via Yarner and Haytor which truly is a magnificent road to travel along and admire the wonderful scenery as you enter the Dartmoor National Park.

IMG_2668.jpgI travelled on the 13:40 departure from Newton Abbot this afternoon and there were five of us on board as we left although one didn’t travel far getting off at an exclusive looking private school, Stover School, just outside the town with another passenger joining us at Bovey Tracey getting us back to five again, although he alighted at the Moor’s Visitor Centre just past the hamlet of Haytor Vale where the Moor proper begins.

IMG_2600.jpgWe picked up four more here and when we got to Widicombe one got off and there were eight waiting to board who’d all obviously travelled out on one of the two morning journeys and had enjoyed a walk across the wonderful scenic countryside.

IMG_2604.jpgAfter a short pause in Widicombe in the Moor we retraced our route up the steep narrow access road for a couple of miles before turning sharp left and heading up a narrow unclassified road, along which, after a few more miles we picked up three more walkers who’d travelled out this morning.

IMG_2629.jpgWe then turned right along the narrowest of roads for the longest duration I think I’ve travelled along – it even beat some of the narrow roads in Pembrokeshire used by the Strumble Shuttle.

IMG_2623.jpgInevitably we met a car coming towards us which had no option but to reverse some distance to enable us to pass.

IMG_2622.jpgAt the village of Manaton one of the five passengers who’d got on at Newton Abbot alighted and we picked up three more making for twenty on board.

IMG_2610.jpgI heard the driver telling the lady alighting that he’d look out for her on the next and last journey of the day and he reassured her there’d be room but “I’m expecting the journey to be busy”. It had obviously been a busy first two journeys this morning; and it’s great to see that.

IMG_2627.jpgThe photographs here cannot do justice to the amazingly spectacular scenery this bus route offers; sadly the bus windows were not particularly clean, especially the back window, but I still found it exhilarating and I rank it as one of the best scenic bus routes I’ve travelled on. It was also lovely to see so many Dartmoor ponies freely roaming around too.

IMG_2609.jpg

IMG_2611.jpgIt seems a shame the route only runs on a Saturday as I would have thought it would be just as popular on a Sunday with both walkers and people just enjoying the ride around. The fact that everyone pays a fare means the revenue is as it is with no discounted reimbursement issues.

IMG_2632.jpgUnfortunately the bus was not accessible having a three step entrance rather than being low floor so there was no provision for a wheelchair despite the capacity stating there was.

IMG_2631.jpgThe standing capacity showing as zero indicates Country Bus are using the ‘get out’ clause of the vehicle being classified as a ‘coach’ so will only be caught by the accessibility legislation from next January when it will become illegal.

IMG_2547.jpgThe interior of the vehicle also had an odd pair of seats which made for an unkept appearance.

IMG_2548.jpgThat aside, it was a very enjoyable ride around with a friendly and helpful driver, expertly driven and scenery to die for. It was very encouraging to see it so well used too and not a free ride in sight. Definitely a bus route ‘to do’.

IMG_2618.jpg

I was planning to head on from Newton Abbot to Exeter on the quick and direct Stagecoach route X64 via the A380. It was showing on the network map on Stagecoach’s website …

IMG_E2664.jpg…. but entering X64 into the ‘Timetable’ look up brought no results. I’m grateful to John Crowhurst, who also encouraged me to ride the 271, for explaining the X64 has been replaced and revised and the section of route between Totnes, Newton Abbot and Exeter is now numbered 7.

IMG_2637.jpgI’m not sure how you’re supposed to know that as even the map dated April 2019 in what’s left of Exeter bus station is showing the X64 still operates.

IMG_2660.jpgAnyway we made good progress on the 41 minute journey to Exeter thanks to the free flowing A380…

IMG_2648.jpg…and arrived at the now truncated Exeter bus station where redevelopment of much of the former land is now well under way.

IMG_2654.jpgIMG_2657.jpg

IMG_2655.jpg

Roger French

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…!

IMG_9822.jpg

IMG_9823.jpg

 

Topless in Hastings

Friday 31st May 2019

There’s been a welcome resurgence in the traditional open top bus market (as opposed to high profile City Sightseeing) over the last few years with long withdrawn routes returning to their once regular haunts. Yellow Buses resurrected their seafront service in Bournemouth and Boscombe a couple of years ago, as did Stagecoach South West in Torbay. Stagecoach in Kent and East Sussex have also been busy giving open top bus routes a whirl with their route 69 between Ramsgate and Broadstairs now entering its fourth season following introduction in Summer 2016.

I had a ride on it during that first season and it was packed out, as well as suffering from timekeeping problems due to heavy summer traffic especially in Broadstairs. I was also impressed to see such a bargain fare at just £2 a ride. I reckon it was seriously underpriced for the market.

It’s good to see the route has prospered and this year’s season continues right through until the end of September.

Stagecoach tried a second route in the Thanet area the following summer along Margate’s seafront. Route 37 however was not so successful and hasn’t reappeared. Margate itself struggles to regain its supremacy in the seaside market and the 37 reflected that.

This summer sees Stagecoach introduce another open top route over the border in East Sussex. Appropriately numbered 66, the route provides a seafront service from Hasting Old Town past the rejuvenated pier and then inland for a short distance to the Combe Haven holiday park.

It’s operated to the successful Stagecoach formula of an hourly frequency with an hours gap in the middle of an eight hour, single shift duty for a meal break. Route 66 has a day ticket priced at £4.50 with a 30p saving if bought on a smartphone app and up to four children paying just £1 to attract families. That’s a good deal especially as it’s actually the Hastings area day ticket so available in all Stagecoach bus routes in the town. There’s a cheaper standard return ticket on the 66 at £3.50 or it’s £2.30 for one single ride.

The bus has a busy but eye catching livery particularly appealing to children and although I’m normally aghast at operators covering windows in contravision which badly distorts views, in this case the downstairs has been made fun for children who may travel there if it gets a bit too breezy up top, by the inclusion of ‘port holes’ through the contravision. As always though, contravision is controversial, and they’ll be plenty of views about views (and the lack of them).

On the journeys I travelled on earlier today one family braved the fairly breezy ride up top in one direction but took the downstairs option on the return; although I noticed one of the port holes didn’t match up with the raised seats on the offside, which is a shame.

Naturally the most important thing about open top buses is the scenic delights from the top deck and the 66 doesn’t disappoint with most of the 17 minute westbound journey time offering panoramic views of the seafront providing for a very pleasant ride….

….

…. in both directions….. it’s always a shame to see seafronts lined with parked cars and Hastings is no exception.

The western terminus of the 66 is right next to the Combe Haven holiday park, popular with families, so smart move Stagecoach, although it does mean the return journey includes five or six minutes wandering around residential streets in that part of west Hastings by Harley Shute to return to the seafront.

The eastbound running time is consequently slightly longer at 23 minutes, but this still means there’s a handy recovery time of 20 minutes in every hour in the schedule which allows for delays caused by seasonal slow moving traffic along the seafront and a rather convoluted turning arrangement at the eastern end of the route by Hastings Old Town.

With an eye catching livery, open top bus services generally sell themselves as tourists and visitors see the bus travelling up and down the seafront, but it’s good to have a plentiful supply of leaflets at appropriate outlets and on board the bus (the 66 had a large box full of its timetables on board along with other route timetables) and timetables were displayed prominently at all bus stops along the route. It was good to see Stagecoach have ticked that box, including adding them to the pole when the timetable case was already full.

I hope the 66 is a success and well done Stagecoach for giving it a try. As always with routes of this kind, it’s very weather dependant. Let’s hope for a sunny summer.

Roger French

A paragon of virtue

Saturday 25th May 2019

IMG_8519.jpgThe city of Kingston upon Hull got its share of fame in 2017 with its designation as UK City of Culture leading to all kinds of whacky artistic displays and events.

Aside from its infamous autonomous telephone exchange and unique cream telephone boxes, for me, Hull has always been famous for sporting Britain’s most joined up bus and rail interchange appropriately enough called Hull Paragon Interchange.IMG_8530.jpgSited in the northwest corner of the city’s commercial centre adjacent to the main shops, the six platform rail station sits side by side under the same roof as a 38 bay bus and four bay coach station making for what we now like to call ‘seamless integration’ between modes.IMG_8630.jpgIMG_8553.jpgThe Interchange opened in its current form in 2007 after the bus departure bays were re-sited when the St Stephens shopping mall was built next door.

IMG_8534.jpgElectronic departure screens are placed above each bus bay as well as monitors listing up coming departures of buses on one screen and trains on another placed over the circulating area.

IMG_8550.jpgIMG_8552.jpgThere are also printed displays showing which bus route goes from which bay as well as an index of places served. Naturally all the information applies to both Stagecoach who run the local city routes and Go-Ahead owned East Yorkshire who operate both locally and further afield. However, one negative is there’s no printed listings of departures or bus timetables at each bus stand which would be reassuring and useful, rather than just showing the next departure or two.IMG_8549.jpgIMG_8548.jpgAt the far end of the bus station are four bays (lettered A to D) devoted to express coach departures as well as a multitude of coach companies picking up on tours and excursions. They were very busy first thing this morning. I reckon it must be one of the Country’s busiest coach departure points aside from Victoria.

IMG_8675.jpg

Best of all is the Travel Centre at the front of the Interchange.IMG_8535.jpgImpressively this includes a TransPennine Express operated rail ticket office on one side…IMG_8536.jpgand on the other side counters for Stagecoach, East Yorkshire and National Holidays – proving coach holidays are big business in this part of the world.IMG_8628.jpgBecause the rail ticket office counters have extensive opening hours it means bus passengers have access to the displays of timetables for both bus companies whereas in many places they’re often locked away behind closed doors or windows ‘out of hours’.IMG_8629.jpgBut even the bus and coach counter opening hours are attractive – all three were open on my visit at eight o’clock this morning including two people on hand to sell me a National Holiday had I been interested (photographed above).

IMG_8859.jpgThere’s also a rather swish and colourful Visitor Information Centre in the entrance to the Interchange which has got a brilliant large scale map of the city centre which I noticed was proving very helpful for visitors. I suspect this may be a legacy of the 2017 City of Culture and if so it’s good to see it still thriving although ominously at least one of the staff members was a volunteer, according to the back of his t-shirt.IMG_8861.jpgKingston upon Hull’s Paragon Interchange really is a model of best practice and shows what can be done to integrate both trains and buses under one roof. Long may it continue.

I did find a couple of things to nit pick about though; it spoils the image when bus company staff plaster walls with notices, most of which are ignored by the public, and don’t achieve their objective. I know staff mean well by “putting up a notice”, but it seldom proves effective. Frankly, I doubt anyone wanders over to the back wall for a good read.

IMG_8537.jpgPresentation is all important; take the image portrayed by smartcards, for example. Everything invested in their technology is smashed when a notice about them appears in a folded hole punched sleeve!IMG_8538.jpg

Another reason I dropped into Hull was to see in the flesh the attractive new livery and branding recently launched by East Yorkshire; and it certainly looked every bit as good as the photographs in the trade press and on social media have portrayed.

IMG_8855.jpgIMG_8733.jpgThe long standing former EYMS livery prior to Go-Ahead’s ownership has always been very traditional befitting the Company’s erstwhile culture and it’s good to see a sympathetic transition evolving to a bright new look for a first class bus company. Some of the former route branding used by EYMS was also an acquired Marmite like taste!

IMG_8858.jpg

IMG_8543.jpgMeanwhile Stagecoach have been using its ‘simplibus’ branding for a few years now for its network of city bus routes.IMG_8625.jpgI like the concept but it’s application lacks a certain flair and design expertise. On balance I prefer the ‘citi’ brand used in Cambridge and Peterborough.

IMG_8842.jpgIt looks like someone came up with a few ‘simpli’ slogans, got them printed, and stuck them up.IMG_8544.jpgAnd some of the single deck rears come across as anything but simple with lots to read as the bus passes by. A multitude of messages makes for ‘complexbus’ if you’re not careful.IMG_8804.jpgMore positively the Stagecoach colour coded map and timetables for city routes in two leaflets are very easy to follow and understand….

IMG_E8960.jpg… if a little large once unfolded….IMG_E8961.jpg…. and it’s also good to see Stagecoach’s X62 route to Leeds now has new double decks and the previous rather naff ‘❤️ your X62’ slogan dropped.IMG_8777.jpg However it might be worth making more of this route than just being another strand of the ‘simplibus’ brand; perhaps along the lines of the Humber Fast Cat branded route across the Humber to Scunthorpe which always looks eye catching.IMG_8608.jpgThe rears photographed below on some Stagecoach buses have a great message for following motorists, if somewhat in your face presentationally. I doubt that anyone would ever be able to read the full message on the lower rear commercial advert, which is just as well so as not to take away from the overall message from the upper image! The overall end result is sadly a bit of a mess.

IMG_8542.jpg

However, these are rather small nit picky points and all in all I reckon Hull enjoys excellent bus provision and I’m sure the future will be even more exciting with upcoming developments at a bright resurgent East Yorkshire passing what looks more like a traditional Stagecoach by….IMG_8645.jpg…..but above all else, whatever the future holds, please keep that paragon of virtue, the Paragon Interchange.

Breich update……Finally, my apologies to subscribers to my blog who receive posts by email at the rather abrupt and non sensical ending of yesterday’s post. The perils of writing blogs on Class 158 trains rattling along tracks in the East Riding and hitting the publish button in error before being ready …. what that ending was going to say … and which I deleted online but include now is ….

IMG_7525.jpgFinally a fascinating follow up to the blog about Breich station on Thursday and thanks to everyone who got in touch particularly John who gave this interesting background: “The station was proposed for closure in the late 1990s, but ‘rescued’ by a resident of Breich who had considerable form as a campaigner on local issues. In return for keeping the station open, a timetable was provided specifically for the needs of this individual, a daily pick-up stop at around 08:04 towards Edinburgh, where this person worked, and a daily set-down stop at about 18:37 from Edinburgh. The entries and exits at Breich tracked quite clearly the progress of Breich’s passenger, from full-time employment, to part-time, and eventual retirement. Very shortly after his death, NR proposed Breich for closure. However, station closures have become politicaly impossible in Scotland (see also IBM), which helps explain the amount spent on upgrading Breich, which was non-compliant in so many ways with modern electrification standards.”

How amazing, and many thanks John for getting in touch with that gem which explains the ‘one passenger a week’ in the station use statistics; one wonders what next year’s stats will show now he has sadly died but this campaigning passenger’s legacy of a best ever service for the station lives on.

Roger French

PS Eagle eyed readers may have spotted a GWR HST disappearing in one of the photographs above. And yes, you’re right it is one and is on loan to Hull Trains but I’m not sure what it was doing leaving the station at 0749 this morning?

IMG_8554.jpg

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.

IMG_5173.jpg

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.

IMG_5884.jpg

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.

IMG_6086.jpg

IMG_6153.jpg

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.

IMG_6154.jpg

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

Funday in Furness

Monday 29th April 2019

Today’s been a fascinating day visiting three tiny islands off England’s north west coast alongside Barrow in Furness.

Until a few months ago when planning this adventure I had no idea they even existed!

The Borough of Barrow, including neighbouring Dalton, has a population of around 57,000 and is Cumbria’s second most populated town after Carlisle. It sits in the south western corner of the county close to the Lancashire border over Morecambe Bay.

IMG_E5192.jpgInterestingly Barrow had its own municipally owned bus company (Barrow Borough Transport) until it went bust thirty years ago since when Stagecoach have run a neat network of local town routes as well as the X6 to Ulverston and Kendal and the less frequent 6 to Windermere – both lovely double deck operated routes to travel on.

IMG_5195.jpgBarrow is synonymous with ship building but the town is now dominated by a huge BAE Systems presence who also own the airport on Walney Island and from he recruitment centre I spotted are obviously big in submarines.

IMG_5199.jpg

I’d never been on Walney Island which is the small piece of land that juts out in the shape of a two-prong tap handle.

IMG_5201.jpgIt’s connected to the mainland by a lovely looking road bridge so this morning I took an early ride on routes 1 to Biggar Bank in South Walney and route 2 to West Shore, Earnse Bay in North Walney.

IMG_5205.jpgBoth turned out to be delightful terminal spots right on the coast and it was lovely to see dog walkers and joggers out enjoying the early morning sunshine even before 8am this morning.

IMG_5209.jpgRoute 1 stops outside an unusually shaped Chinese restaurant while route 2 stops alongside the West Shore holiday-cum-permanent home park complex.

IMG_5214.jpgBarrow’s town routes are mainly operated by Optare Solos but my journey on the 2 had an Enviro 300 which I understand had previously operated in Carlisle. Loadings were average for pre 8am travelling in a small-size town and it was noticeable that many passengers were using Stagecoach smartcards including a few topping them up on board for the week ahead.

IMG_5213.jpgAfter that island foray I could have got the X6 from Barrow over to Ulverston for my second island visit but I’d preplanned using the train as I wanted to get off and admire the town’s station which previously I’d only travelled through but got an inkling how gorgeous it is.

IMG_5330.jpg

IMG_5331.jpgI’m really pleased I did as it really is a lovely station with ‘three’ platforms although only Lancaster bound trains use the island platform 3 with platform 2 effectively disused as Barrow bound trains use the main ‘station building’ platform 1.

IMG_5225.jpg

IMG_5329.jpgAfter a late breakfast break in Ulverston I headed down to the town’s main bus stops intrigued to see what would arrive for my next journey on bus route 11 which I was taking via the coast road back towards Barrow but alighting on Roa Island.

IMG_5344.jpgRoute 11 is operated by Blueworks – which must be the only bus company to be running a regular timetabled bus service without an O licence. Instead the owner, Phil, is valiantly keeping this route and his other routes (the X12 from Ulverston to Coniston and the Ulverston local X70) going using his taxi licence until 30th May when a Public Inquiry being held by the Traffic Commissioner determines whether his O licence will be reinstated.

IMG_5340.jpgI’m not an expert on taxi licensing but was intrigued to see four eight-seater taxis draw up for the 1015 departure to Barrow and Phil and the drivers organising the passengers to board the appropriate vehicles in the most efficient way depending on their alighting bus stop as well as taking the individual ‘bus’ fares or swiping concessionary passes, presumably for reimbursement from Cumbria County Council.

IMG_5343.jpgCumbria are renowned for not providing any funding whatsoever for bus routes across the county and Phil confirmed to me he receives no subsidy for running these routes so I have to admire his perseverance at keeping these three services going on what must be a very costly arrangement. Presumably he’s concerned Stagecoach might step in if he gave up.

IMG_5354.jpgIt’s obviously much appreciated by all the regular passengers who’ve got used to the new arrangements (which seem to have been in place since January) despite the awkwardness of getting in and out of an eight seater taxi, especially from the back three seats when passengers are occupying the middle set of three seats blocking the exit doors!

IMG_5347.jpgIt was quite a business but everyone took it in great spirit.

Such is the support for Phil and Blueworks there’s a ‘Friends of the X112X70’ help group. I’m sure some members will be at the Public Inquiry rooting for Phil.

IMG_E5650.jpg

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 15.12.41.png

Roa Island is connected to the mainland by a causeway and is a micro community centred around the rather impressive Barrow lifeboat station.

IMG_5417.jpg

My good friend and renowned expert on all things Cumbria and the Lake District, Roger Davies, had recommended my taking a trip from there to Piel Island last year and I was delighted to have arrived on such a beautiful sunny and calm sea day to take the small ferry from the jetty at the south end of Roa Island over to explore this incredible island.

IMG_5419.jpg

IMG_5420.jpgThe Duke of Buccleuch gifted the 50 acre island to the people of Barrow in 1920 and as well as the landlord of the pub/restaurant/cafe on the island (and being designated King of Piel) there reportedly are three other permanent family residents occupying the little row of five terraced houses.

IMG_5405.jpg

IMG_5396.jpgThe only other building on the island is the ruins of Piel Castle built in the early 14th Century to protect the harbour from Scottish raids.

IMG_5404.jpgIMG_5408.jpg

John runs the ferry as needed between the jetty on Roa Island and Piel Island. It takes about five minutes to make the crossing and he keeps an eye out across the water to see if anyone is waiting.

IMG_5410.jpgAround a dozen people travelled during the two hours I spent on Piel which was enough time to wander all around and sit and have refreshments in the cafe and chat to the locals who are all friendly and welcoming including the regulars who take the crossing to soak up the peaceful and convivial atmosphere.

IMG_5390.jpg

I headed back to Roa Island in good time for the 1419 (the second and the day’s last) journey on the 11 back to Ulverston from where the same ‘bus’ continues through to Coniston as an X12. It’s a bit of a complicated timetable but the locals seem to understand it!

IMG_E5649.jpg

Despite their lack of interest in funding bus routes Cumbria do a decent job at listing departures at bus stops all over the county but it was a bit disconcerting to find the sparsely served stop at Roa Island timetable-less.

IMG_5421.jpg

IMG_5423.jpgI needn’t have worried as precisely at 1419 my eight seater arrived with two passengers already on board in the rearmost seats heading home with shopping from Barrow having caught one of the flotilla of taxis which had left Ulverston earlier at 1015 for the town.

IMG_5426.jpgAt Ulverston we had a brief pause along with the second (slightly larger) taxi which was also heading for Coniston and had a few passengers already on board.

IMG_5435.jpgIMG_5433.jpgI stayed on my taxi and was joined by one passenger heading home for a ride about half way along the route, otherwise we didn’t pick anyone else up.

IMG_5432.jpgArriving in Coniston and time for another break before catching the 1640 Stagecoach route 505 over to Ambleside (from where this particular journey continues south to Kendal).

IMG_5537.jpgThis is a lovely route along the twisty and hilly B5285 via Hawkshead Hill and Hawkshead rather than the more direct A593.

IMG_5538.jpgAt Ambleside I switched to the Lake District’s main spine bus route the famous 555 heading north to Keswick to end my day’s travels.

IMG_5647.jpgEvery time I travel on this route I drool at the amazing and spectacular scenery whether it be the serenity of the water the bus drives alongside …

IMG_5635.jpg…. or the magnificence of the mountains which tower up in contrast.

IMG_5639.jpgOpen top route 599 supplements the 555 as far north as Grasmere (and south to Windermere – and Bowness – from Ambleside) at an impressive 20 minute frequency and the livery of buses used on both routes is simply Best Impressions’ best.

IMG_5622.jpgIt’s also always great to see timetables available on board buses throughout the Lake District and earlier in the day I spotted a local guide for Barrow buses. Well done Stagecoach in Cumbria.

An excellent day.

IMG_5630.jpgIMG_5210.jpg

Roger French

A great Deal in Kent

Sunday 10th March 2019

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Garden of England. My journeys on two days last week included visits to both ends of Kent – to Dover and Deal on the Channel coast in the south east and to Sevenoaks close to the County’s western border with Greater London.

Both Stagecoach South East and Go-Coach Hire, the dominant bus companies in these two areas, are excellent bus operators for the following reasons…..

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.27.51.pngStagecoach’s attractive bus network in Kent is an excellent example offering comprehensive coverage for passengers as well as ‘behind-the-scenes’ operating efficiency for the company. It includes well used inter-urban links between main urban areas at good frequencies despite some recent reductions (and competition from Southeastern trains), as well as small bespoke town networks and a few great rural routes, some operated by double deck buses due to school peak requirements, which offer fantastic views across the Kent countryside.

Notable among these are the 11 (five journeys Canterbury – Westwood and Broadstairs via the delightfully named Plucks Gutter with its timing point The Dog & Duck), and 17 (hourly Folkestone – Canterbury via the lovely Elham Valley). There’s also the 18 (five journeys Canterbury – Hythe via Wheelbarrow Town) but this is scheduled for single decks. Still a great route though.

IMG_9552.jpgStagecoach South East also craftily link one route with another to provide helpful ‘cross-terminal’ journey opportunities. Southeastern Trains also do this with the rail network such you can get on a High Speed Train at St Pancras and travel via Ashford and Folkestone to Dover round to Deal and Sandwich where the train continues on to Ramsgate and Margate and back via Faversham to St Pancras where it arrives after a 3 hour and 33 minute round trip.

IMG_0722.jpgStagecoach run a ‘circular route’ called the Triangle from Canterbury to Whitstable and Herne Bay which is marketed as Triangle in addition to linking routes 4 and 6 which run similarly between Canterbury and Herne Bay via two different routes and where they link up to also provide a circular ‘triangle’.

IMG_9275 (1).jpg

IMG_0797.jpgAnother good example of timetabled through working providing great travel opportunities are the routes I travelled on last Friday – the 80 and 81 which run two buses an hour between Dover and Deal (via slightly different routes – but both giving great views of Dover and its castle) and on to Sandwich (via Hacklinge or Eastry) where they turn into a 43 and continue westwards to Canterbury.

IMG_0860.jpgIMG_0863.jpgBetween Sandwich and Canterbury the 43 runs at an attractive twenty minute frequency with the extra bus an hour commencing in Ramsgate to provide a Ramsgate, Sandwich Canterbury service. It all fits together very nicely, and Sandwich is well worth a visit.

IMG_0942.jpgIMG_0939.jpgAnd best of all Stagecoach South East must be commended for their excellent colour coordinated marketing and publicity for these and the other bus routes they run throughout Kent. It really is a treat to find a colourful network map together with individual leaflets (almost as good as a book!) each with an individual clear map of the route in a geographic context and, where appropriate an extract from the network map to show other routes in the area. They really are exemplars of good timetable leaflet practice.

IMG_0728.jpgI also spotted the network map on display in major points such as Dover’s Pencester Road (albeit inside the now rather worn information office) and at Canterbury in a display case on the bus station’s concourse alongside the travel office with its display of timetables and other tourist leaflets inside.

IMG_0856.jpgAnd the icing on the cake is the colour coding follows through to large easy-to-see bus stop numbers on virtually every bus stop flag. They really were impressive to see and showed a level of attention to detail and excellent intent to provide clear information.

IMG_0920.jpgIMG_0945.jpgIMG_0911.jpg

Bus stop timetable displays are also easy to follow and understand and appeared at every stop.

IMG_E0949.jpg

It’s so refreshing to see such excellent clear information and just goes to show it can be done.

As is the case around fifty miles over at the western end of the county in Sevenoaks. Here it’s interesting to see Go-Coach Hire Ltd go from strength to strength as they move from being a small time tender operator when they first began in the bus market just over ten years ago to now taking over from Arriva Kent as the network operator in this area.

IMG_0546.jpgOn previous visits to Sevenoaks I’ve been impressed with how Go-Coach have taken over the town’s bus station and proudly emblazoned their bright yellow and purple branding to brighten up what would otherwise be a rather dull wind tunnel of two departure bays.

IMG_0541.jpgThere’s a small travel office with an amazingly friendly and helpful member of staff and an excellent full display of timetable leaflets including those services operated by Arriva thereby providing a much welcome comprehensive coverage of routes operated in the area.

IMG_0656.jpgIMG_0658.jpgI was particularly impressed to see that the out-of-date no-longer-issued maps from Kent County Council which used to be on display in the bus station on previous visits have been replaced by up to date maps of Go-Coach’s network. I spotted them on bus shelters elsewhere in the town too.

IMG_0537.jpgThe bus stop plates also feature both Arriva and Go-Coach’s serves and all clearly presented to appropriate corporate style.

IMG_0572.jpgInterestingly from early next month Arriva Kent are throwing in the towel on local routes 1 and 2 from Sevenoaks to Dunton Green and Kemsing.

IMG_0550.jpgThey’re the routes Arriva converted to the horribly cramped Mercedes Sprinter minibuses a year ago. I had a ride in the first week and knew within a few minutes it would be a complete failure.

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.15.47.pngCompletely unsuitable for the market and what a shame passenger numbers have obviously plummeted in response to such unattractive vehicles. On Wednesday when I visited larger buses had already supplanted the minibuses on route 2.

IMG_0649.jpgGo-Coach are taking over these routes as part of their expanding network and I hope their local connections and attention to detail in getting things right for passengers will attract enough passengers back to the routes to make it a commercial success for them.

IMG_4118.jpgIt’s interesting, nearly fifty years on from London Country Bus Services being formed in 1970 just how many bus companies now operate in what was the polo mint around London, and increasingly successfully too, after some traumatic times after deregulation and privatisation in the late 1980s. Metrobus in Crawley and Ensignbus in Grays come to mind as top class acts, but Go-Coach are making great strides to make this corner of Kent a great exemplar of how a small network operator can succeed.IMG_0585.jpgSadly, they often say, a bus company’s reputation is only as good as the last journey taken and my attempted journey with Go-Coach didn’t quite work out as planned on Wednesday; but company boss Austin Blackburn was on the case straight away as soon as he saw my tweet and made sure appropriate action was taken and apologies made – and that was impressive and just showed a caring owner giving attention to detail, which is what it’s all about. I’m already looking forward to a return trip and hopefully next time be successful in catching the Wednesday only tendered rural route 405 to West Kingsdown before it ends very soon!

Roger French

PS I spotted the information about Arriva Kent giving up routes 1 and 2 on their website and commendably they refer to the replacements being operated by Go-Coach Hire but a slip of the year shows the date in the headline as 2018 rather than 2019. It seems even when this is pointed out by tweet to Arriva last Wednesday, it still isn’t corrected on their website today. Attention to detail and reacting to feedback and all that…not!

IMG_E0536.jpg

Battle for Bellfields begins as Guildford goes electric

Monday 7th January 2019

It’s all happening in Guildford this week. Stagecoach South introduced a fleet of nine ADL Enviro 200EV electric buses on the Guildford Park and Ride services today while, as predicted in my post on 16th November last year, the bus war between Arriva and Safeguard has escalated into Bellfields. I had a look at both developments this morning.

First the electrics and their high profile ‘glide’ brand. There are four Park & Ride sites in Guildford; they’re well used, being popular with both commuters and shoppers. The four car parks are all relatively close to the city centre with Artington, to the south on the Godalming road, only a seven minute journey from the bus station while Merrow on the Leatherhead road to the east has a twelve minute journey time. The other two car parks just off the A3 are equally close: Onslow in the west is ten minutes while Spectrum to the north is eight minutes. So I suspect these not particularly arduous journey times are ideal for the electric buses with their high capacity roof mounted batteries with overnight charging giving a reported 150 mile range.

Naturally the buses come with usb sockets and wifi, but on their current duties you’re hardly on the bus long enough to have time to sort out the plug-in lead from your bag, nor go through the logging in process for wifi. Handy facilities if the buses move on to other routes during their lifetime, I suppose.

The seat moquette is to Stagecoach’s brash “iron brew” colour specification or a cross between Aldi-meets-Tesco-meets-Sainsbury’s. I find it a bit overpowering in double deckers and much prefer the softer grey colour scheme used in the north west (on Service X2 – pictured below); but for the short ride, the seats are comfortable enough, and at least the colours brighten up a single deck interior, if a bit in your face.

Interior messages on the cove panels are thankfully large enough to actually be read and extol some of the virtues of the services as well as promoting Stagecoach’s longer distance routes from Guildford.

Most impressive of all is the quietness of the transmission/engine, the only noise coming from bumps in the road, which those aside, means the smoothness of the ride really does stand out. Quite a few passengers were commenting positively about the “new electric buses” and it was good to hear general positivity about the service. Well done Stagecoach and Surrey County Council – the buses have certainly raised the profile for Park and Ride – an essential ingredient in Guildford’s notorious traffic challenges.

Meanwhile, the residents of Guildford’s Bellfields estate woke up this morning to double the number of buses to take them on the 14-17 minute journey into the town centre. It was obvious to me that Safeguard were not going to take Arriva’s completely foolish incursion last November into the Park Barn estate and Royal Surrey County Hospital competing with their routes without reacting. They’ve been serving that area extremely well for decades so they’re not going to simply give up and allow Arriva to muscle in and take their business away.

A retaliatory competitive service against Arriva into Bellfields was therefore only to be expected. My view hasn’t changed since writing in November: “the only likely outcome” (of the incursion into Park Barn) “is by next Spring Arriva will withdraw Route B (and probably slim down route A) as it won’t be meeting the profit targets expected at Sunderland HQ”.

I’ll go further now and suggest a likely outcome is Arriva will now capitulate, withdraw their Service 3 completely and cede Bellfields to Safeguard. There clearly aren’t enough passengers to support two twenty minute frequency services. There’ll be no generation. Of the two operators there’s no doubt Safeguard enjoy any brand loyalty such as it is, but in the main, passengers will catch the first bus that comes along, which by dint of timings is likely to be Safeguard (timetabled to run five minutes ahead of Arriva). On Saturdays Arriva only run half hourly to Safeguard’s new twenty minute frequency so one departure will have a Safeguard bus behind, and the other in front. Arriva run an hourly frequency on Sundays under contract to Surrey County Ciuncil.

Full marks once again to Surrey County Council who have displayed up to date timetables at all the bus stops along the route and in Guildford bus station – I doubt many local authorities would deliver up to date information so efficiently. Well done.

Today’s experience demonstrates once again how Safeguard, unsurprisingly, have that all important attention to detail spot on with new timetable leaflets for their 3S service on board both buses together with balloons and sweets for passengers as a novelty addition and friendly drivers, while Arriva were still running a “lumbering double deck” I mentioned last November (completely unsuitable for the route) and a branded single deck for MAX 34/35 routes! Hardly demonstrating commitment.

I’m beginning to wonder how long the entire Surrey outpost of the Arriva Kent operation controlled from Maidstone, will be sustainable. We’ve already seen Abellio Surrey give up and pull out …….

Roger French