A south Suffolk saunter

Friday 26th July 2019

I incorporated Wednesday’s ride on Buckland Buses’ splendid 1929 Dennis on route 250 between Aldeburgh and Thropeness into an enjoyable couple of days saunter around the lovely countryside in south Suffolk.

IMG_4394.jpgOn Tuesday morning I caught the stopping train to Ipswich out of Liverpool Street at 11:04 as far as Marks Tey. It’s impressive to see the efficient use of track capacity on the fast lines out of Liverpool Street since May with a flotilla of trains pathed within minutes including the new ‘Norwich in 90’ only stopping at Ipswich leaving at 11:00; the normal hourly Norwich leaving at 11:02 with stops at Colchester, Manningtree, Ipswich and Diss then the train I caught with calls at Stratford, Shenfield, Chelmsford, Hatfield Peverel, Witham and Kelvedon. This train is followed out of Liverpool Street by a Southend Victoria train and then one to Clacton-on-Sea.

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Added to this efficiency is a three minute connection at Marks Tey to an hourly train on the single track branch line to Sudbury, which I easily made along with about a dozen other passengers.IMG_4395.jpgThis is a lovely branch line which I ranked 85th in my Hundred Best Train Journeys not least because it passes the quirky East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne station with the Museum’s trains occupying the southbound platform which hasn’t been used for many years. The other station on the branch is at Bures just outside Sudbury.

IMG_5886.jpgGreater Anglia have sensibly placed a poster at Marks Tey explaining its policy on maintaining connections – the ten minutes allowance covers the stand time of the train on the branch within its hour’s cycle and obviously prevents knock on delays for further passengers – it was good to see this being stated even if the absolute background detail wasn’t fully explained.

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In Sudbury I wandered over to what is called a bus station (at least there are toilets) and three stops with shelters (albeit very grubby) and timetables showing departures. It’s a Go-Ahead Group bus hand-me-down spotters delight with former front line buses from around the Group now enjoying a second life at Group owned Chambers and the independent Beestons.IMG_4399.jpgIMG_4405I enjoyed a ride on a former Scania demonstrator on Beestons operated route 91 to Ipswich and noted it had oddly been fitted with a farebox alongside the driver for exact fares.IMG_4407.jpg This puzzled me for an inter-urban route and as contactless wasn’t yet in operation despite the Ticketer ticket machine displaying the symbol I handed my £5 for the single fare over to the driver who issued a ticket in the traditional way. Beestons didn’t reply to my tweet asking about the farebox and contacless so I am still mystified what the policy is.

IMG_4408.jpgRoute 91 takes 75 minutes for the 21 mile journey via Hadleigh to Ipswich; buses currently run every 90 minutes, but will be changing to two-hourly from the beginning of September, although an improved hourly frequency will be incorporated into the new timetable between Hadleigh and Ipswich.

It’s one of those routes where the first fifteen minutes is spent wandering around the town’s residential streets heading away from the direction of travel, presumably at one time covered by a separate town service of sorts. We dropped about a dozen passengers off with their shopping and sped on to Ipswich with a handful of us left on board. This driver wasn’t hanging around. Once the bus leaves the environs of Sudbury it’s a pleasant run eastwards through the Suffolk countryside. I was particularly impressed with the village of Boxford which looked very attractive and quintessential rural England.

Arriving into Ipswich’s Old Cattle Market bus station at 14:00 a First Bus single decker was just leaving proclaiming it to be a ‘Felixstowe Flyers’ with a high profile promotional flash on the side and in a striking non First Bus corporate livery, which just goes to prove such marketing works, as it encouraged me to change my original plans and seek the service out for a ride.

The attractive timetable leaflet for the 75, 76, 77 and X7 which runs between Ipswich and Felixstowe has helpful maps explaining the route variations at the Felixstowe end and the timetable shows a twenty minute frequency is overlaid with an hourly fast (pretty much non-stop) X7 via the A14 giving a journey time to central Felixstowe of just 35/36 minutes – comparing favourably with 46/48 minutes on the stopping routes.

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Having missed the 14:00 X7 departure I caught the 14:20 all-stops 75 and was impressed with the good load of passengers throughout the route.IMG_4449.jpgWe were a bit late into Felixstowe’s Great Eastern Square, due at 15:06, so I just missed being able to photograph that branded X7 I’d seen at 14:00 in Ipswich heading back at 15:10.

Screen Shot 2019-07-25 at 20.26.12.pngIt gave me a chance to have a look around Felixstowe and particularly the greatly slimmed down rail station, now a shadow of its former past glory.

Great Eastern Square is actually the former station building now converted into small independent retail units with a car park out the back where once trains would have arrived on the tracks. The one platform now left is on the other side of the car park meaning passengers have to walk a fair distance to the main road outside.

IMG_4451.jpgThere’s an hourly train that shuttles up and down between Felixstowe and Ipswich timetabled to take 26 minutes. The 15:24 arrival brought a good load of passengers in and left at 15:28 with another busy train load.

IMG_4455.jpgThere’s plenty of people travelling between Ipswich and Felixstowe – I popped down to the seafront and reminded myself how attractive this coastal resort is.

IMG_4483.jpgIt was approaching 16:10 and I eagerly waited the next X7 back to Ipswich. I was waiting outside the cinema, the stop before Great Eastern Square, and the slightly late 16:00 route 77 picked up most of the dozen or so waiting passengers just as the X7 arrived with just four of us getting on board – not very impressive – and while I was pleased to have a top deck view on the journey back I was a bit surprised not to see the branded ‘Felixstowe Flyers’ bus on any of the other X7 journeys observed later that afternoon.

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One journey was operated by one of the rather smart looking Ipswich Reds branded buses which should now operate route 60….

IMG_4534.jpg… and another by a standard liveried bus…..

IMG_4601.jpgI can only assume vehicles on the X7 interwork with other routes across the late afternoon and evening peak which is a shame to lose the bespoke brand promoting what could be a decent alternative to the train and the all-stops bus routes. And I regret not being able to include a photo of a Flexistowe Flyers branded bus here despite trying to track it down, but I’m indebeted to the Central Suffolk Bus Blog (worth checking out) who included an explanation and recent report that the one vehicle so branded does appear on other routes around the network…

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As a slight digression, it was observed on Twitter after I posted a photo of the Ipswich Reds livery correctly on route 60 that it resembles the livery now being used by First Cymru in Swansea. Here’s an Ipswich reds…

IMG_4430.jpg…and here’s a First Cymru….IMG_3282.jpg…. which only goes to show you can’t keep a good livery down and it makes sense for the First Ipswich/Eastern Counties marketing people to copy and adapt a smart livery from a sister company (for now) in the same Group.

Back to the Ipswich to Felixstowe market … an off-peak day return on the train without a Railcard is £6.10 while a return on First Ipswich is just 30p cheaper at £5.80. The peak train fare is only 20p more at £6.30 with a weekly season at £24.90. On First Ipswich it’s £22 (£21 on an mTicket) for a weekly ticket I’m not sure these savings are enough to tempt rail users to give the X7 Felixstowe Flyers a go. Perhaps some more attractive fare offers and better fleet allocation and branding would help?

 

Wednesday morning was the day to travel to Aldeburgh for my vintage bus ride and I planned catching the First Ipswich route 800 which connects the town’s two Park & Ride sites from the west (Copdock, London Road) through the town centre to the east (Martlesham) every 15 minutes. One journey an hour is extended further east via Woodbridge to Rendlesham adding a half hour trip which effectively means an out of town route is efficiently dovetailed into the Park & Ride service by adding just one extra peak vehicle.

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My 800 left Ipswich town centre at 08:21 and was due in Rendlesham at 09:16 allowing a very comfortable 19 minute connection with the vintage bus leaving at 09:35 to begin its day’s operation with a positioning journey to Aldeburgh.

IMG_4656.jpgHowever despite a modest load our journey got progressively behind schedule and after we hit crawling traffic by Kesgrave High School were over 15 minutes late when we reached the Park & Ride site at Martlesham.

My driver seemed oblivious to the lateness of the journey continuing to drive in a fashion I would describe as ultra cautious and he even left the cab at the Park & Ride bus stop to have a chat with the driver on the bus waiting to return to Ipswich and then wentv to check no one was waiting in the waiting room – even though we were heading away from town, so the chances were extremely remote – he was obviously a very thorough employee and I decided the risk of getting even more late as the journey continued (and getting stranded in Rendlesham) was too great and so decided on a Plan B by bailing out at Melton Station to catch a Greater Anglia train on the East Suffolk line two stations north to Saxmundham where there was a good connection to a First Ipswich 64 to Aldeburgh.

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IMG_4662.jpgMelton is a small station with nothing much to comment on, other than it’s in need of a makeover with all its station name boards looking distinctly faded and unloved. They were barely legible. I’m sure Greater Anglia have it in hand as Saxmundham was sporting smarter signs even though the former station building was still behind barriers following fire damage eighteen months ago.IMG_4669 (1).jpg

IMG_4667.jpgTo cut what’s becoming a long story short, I was waiting for the bus on route 64 in Saxmundham High Street and started to get twitchy that it hadn’t arrived…

IMG_4671.jpg….when I spotted a tweet from First Ipswich advising of a breakdown on the 64. Although there’s no timing point of 09:05 on the journey I was waiting for (it left Ipswich at 08:50), I deduced (correctly) the tweet was referring to my bus, especially as it was now around ten minutes after it’s scheduled arrival, so I took the nuclear option of sourcing a taxi to take me the last twenty minute ride over to Aldeburgh in time to pick up the vintage bus at 11:10.

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And as you may have read I arived in Aldeburgh in time to enjoy a lovely ride on Buckland Buses 1929 vintage Dennis bus and just as we were about to leave an empty First Ipswich bus screened for route 64 arrived which was obviously a replacement for the broken down bus showing how route branded buses can sometimes end up on wrong routes for sensible reasons. And good to see First Ipswich doing their best to recover from the breakdown. But it had been a morning of unplanned events and regretfully missing that forty minute ride on the Dennis from Rendlesham to Aldeburgh.

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After enjoying the vintage ride I headed back to Saxmundham on Border Bus route 521, which takes a circuitous and very pleasant route, (and which I wrote about back in March) …

IMG_1624.jpg… and then to Ipswich on a nice air conditioned Class 170 which made a nice change for the East Suffolk line and a welcome respite from the hot weather.

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Roger French

Back in time 90 years in Aldeburgh

Wednesday 24th July 2019

IMG_4694.jpgThere are lots of wonderful heritage railways all over the country attracting thousands of visitors enjoying a nostalgic train ride. Most are run by volunteers with maybe just a few paid staff and are hugely successful. Who doesn’t enjoy a ride-back-in-time rekindling memories of how things used to be?

Although running days with vintage buses have become quite common these days heritage bus routes running regular services are few and far between. Cumbria Classic Coaches run a great network of once-a-week bus routes with their fleet of wonderful old buses throughout the summer based on Kirkby Stephen, some routes even run all year round; while Quantock Motor Services runs a fantastically scenic weekday route 300 between Minehead and Lynmouth during the summer with a vintage Bristol single decker and Seaford & District has run vintage buses on Sundays between Lewes and Pevensey in recent years but not this year. Sadly the Tuesday only vintage bus route 127 between Ripon and Hawes ceased a couple of years ago.

IMG_4695.jpgBritain’s oldest bus still in regular use (that’s the claim) dates from 1929 and started operating again from today on the summer only route 250 along the Suffolk coast between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness.

I went along this morning to sample a ride and it was well worth the effort especially as my trip over to Aldeburgh this morning was bedevilled with mishaps (more on those in the next blog).

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The 1929 Dennis ‘E’ Type is operated by Buckland Coaches based in Rendlesham. It’s a small set up with ten coaches together with the Dennis, christened Ermintrude, which owner Tony Buckland found back in 1987 in a night club in Stoke-on-Trent about to be demolished and with the bus destined for scrap. It was originally owned and operated by Accrington Motor Services and subsequently passed through many owners with various uses in later decades (including with a travelling circus) and its condition deteriorating.

Tony has lovingly restored Ermintrude and obviously takes great pride in her excellent appearance and sound mechanical condition, including an original 4-cylinder Dennis petrol engine, righthand gate-change crash gearbox, centre throttle pedal and push-on handbrake. It’s an amzing amount of hard work that’s gone into the restoration.

IMG_4677.jpgThis will be the fifth year Tony has operated route 250 along the Suffolk seafront. It runs on Wednesdays and Sundays up to 1st September including Bank Holiday Monday. The timetable incorporates a 40 minute frequency between 10:30 and 15:50 with a half hour break for lunch. At the beginning and end of the day at 09:25 and 15:50 the bus runs in service to and from the Buckland Coaches garage in Rendlesham via Tunstall and Blaxhall.

IMG_4674.jpgJourney time between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness is about twelve minutes but the extended route to Rendlesham takes another forty minutes. A £5 day ticket is available as well as single fares issued from an original Setright ticket machine. No concessionary passes are valid.IMG_4690.jpgTony and conductor Owen (who also drives Ermintrude in the afternoon and works full time at Buckland) were both in fine form today.

Both took a turn at expertly cranking the engine to start turning at the termini (no electric starter motors in 1929), here’s Tony showing his professional technique ….

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…. and Owen expertly changed the blinds just as would have been done ninety years ago (no roller blinds in those days let alone electronic displays!).IMG_4706.jpg

The 29 seater bus was way ahead of its time with separate forward entrance and rear exit – or was it the other way around – to minimise stop dwell time and I noticed Tony expertly doing hand signals out of the cab window.IMG_4680.jpgI’m grateful to Twitter friend Steve (@BusAndTrainPage) (also check out his blog) for alerting me to this service and he joined me for a ride this morning and we were both impressed with the seat comfort offered from ninety years ago.

IMG_4691.jpgIMG_4692.jpgIt was good to see prominent timetables on display at temporary bus stops along the route commendably provided by Suffolk County Council and an attractive leaflet was available and Owen was handing them out to many interested passers by.

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Even though this morning was the first day’s operation there were a few passengers on board and others taking an interest. Ermintrude not surprisingly turns heads and attracts camera phones as she travels up and down this section of Suffolk coastline.

IMG_4702.jpgIf you’re in the East Anglian area in the next few weeks it’s well worth taking a ride on route 250 (the number harks back to an original Eastern Counties bus route on the same road) along this delightful scenic coastline and meet the friendly Tony and Owen – both Aldeburgh and Thropeness are beautiful places to visit too.

IMG_4704.jpgIf you’re unable to make it, you can take a ‘virtual ride’ by viewing this YouTube video.

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More Suffolk travel experiences in the next blog.

Roger French

An Anglian Adventure

Thursday 14th March 2019

It began a month ago. A day out to Norwich to travel route 88 via Bungay and Halesworth to Southwold, where I’d catch the four-journey-a-day tendered route 90 which returns to Halesworth via a very circuitous route through some delightful Suffolk villages as well as the small town of Beccles. Both routes were formerly operated by Anglian Bus until the more recent decision by owners Go-Ahead to phase out that company name and brand in favour of neighbouring Konectbus. News had come that Konectbus had given notice to withdraw the 88 from 1st March following a resurgent First Bus competing on the route between Norwich and Bungay and “sustained losses of several million pounds on our Beccles based operations in the last few years”.

Evening and Sunday journeys are tendered by Norfolk County Council with the section of route between Halesworth and Southwold on the 88, as well as the entire 90, being Suffolk tenders so these needed longer notice periods and are continuing until the end of this month (the tendered bit of route 88) or Easter (route 90).

IMG_8602.jpgIntrigued by all this I headed off to Norwich to investigate. In the event things didn’t work out as planned. The journey I planned to catch on the 88 at 1205 from Norwich was cancelled at short notice due to staff sickness meaning an hours delay and a missed connection in Southwold to the infrequent route 90.

I quickly abandoned the idea of reaching Southwold, took the next 88 as far as Halesworth, and returned home by train from there. The enforced delay in Norwich gave me a chance to assess how Konectbus (and the former Anglian Bus) are doing some years on from Go-Ahead’s acquisitions in March 2010 and April 2012 respectively and inspired me to make plans for a longer return visit to further investigate bus operations in this part of East Anglia, which I was able to achieve this week.

This blog summarises my findings.

1. What are Go-Ahead doing in East Anglia anyway?

IMG_1666.jpgIt’s not surprising the wheels are coming off. The post deregulation history of PLC transport groups in East Anglia is not encouraging. First Bus have struggled for years throughout the region. Their Essex operations are down-at-heel befitting the struggling finances. Norwich based operations are looking better than for many a year (and amazingly now seeing off Go-Ahead on the 88) but they gave up on large parts of Suffolk and Norfolk years ago. Stagecoach tried its hand and failed spectacularly with Norfolk Green.

When the talk was a possible sale of municipally owned Ipswich Buses in the early 2010s it may have made sense for Go-Ahead to buy up a few small independents to build a presence in the region in preparation for a bid. A decade on it makes no sense to be running low margin tendered work at all. To be running substantial loss making operations in a largely rural area remote from other Go-Ahead operations is a complete nonsense.

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IMG_8584.jpgWhat’s more, the image doesn’t look good either. On the positive side the Travel Centre in Norwich bus station, staffed by Konectbus, looks smart and offers an impressive display of timetables covering all bus operators in the city, as does the Norwich Park and Ride operation but the state of the Company’s vehicles on other routes is anything but smart and leaves much to be desired.

IMG_8588.jpgWith one exception shown above (indicating the bus wash must have been working), buses were filthy and unattractive. Some were still in Bluestar livery which must look odd to passengers unaware of that award winning sister Go-Ahead company on the south coast. The image portrayed reminded me of a down-at-heel small time bus operator on the verge of going out of business rather than a subsidiary of a well regarded aspirational multi national transport group quoted on the stock market proud of its reputation. Shareholders wouldn’t be proud of this image nor should management.

IMG_8589.jpgIMG_8591.jpgIMG_8595.jpgMy next departure at 1305 on the 88 on my aborted day trip unimpressively left late because the driver failed to turn up on time meaning passengers experienced well over an hour to wait and of course there was a double load to load too, and for a route in its last couple of weeks operation was actually quite a decent load.IMG_8678.jpgIMG_8698.jpgDown in north Essex and south Suffolk Go-ahead owned Hedingham and Chambers (also both acquired in the 2012 Anglian buying spree) present a smarter image but there are odd inconsistencies in corporate livery. Despite my keen interest in these things I was confused what each brand/company was supposed to look like or whether they were supposed to look the same; goodness knows what passengers and potential passengers think. It’s a complete muddle.IMG_1385.jpgIMG_1221.jpgIMG_1103.jpgIMG_1239.jpgIMG_1092.jpgThe Chambers operated 753/754 trunk route between Colchester, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds seems well run as does the Hedingham run 88 (yes, another 88) between Colchester and Halstead (in a long standing joint operation with First Bus – from the days of Eastern Counties and Hedingham working together) and route 89 between Halstead and Braintree all of which I sampled, but these routes will never be double digit profit margin bankers for a PLC.IMG_1198.jpgMy advice to Go-Ahead is to get First Bus to agree a couple of hundred grand off the price of Manchester Queens Road and throw this lot in as part of a transfer deal. It would make for a sensible ‘Withdrawal Deal’ for Go-Ahead in Anglia. Another exit strategy would ironically be to sell the former independently operated routes back to, err, an independent operator (see below).

2. A mixed First Bus bag

IMG_1809.jpgI mentioned above that First Bus seem to have got their act together in Norwich now looking smarter and presentable. The high profile excel ‘X1’ route at one time from Peterborough to Lowestoft, now split into manageable sections, still brings quality looking buses into Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. While at one time Anglian Bus seemed to be running rings around First Bus on the Norwich, Beccles, Lowestoft corridor nowadays First’s X2 (fast) and X22 (via Loddon) provide four buses an hour (two on each route) making for a decent service which seemed well used on my travels.

IMG_1827.jpgLowestoft has always seemed to be low down the First Bus priority list whenever I’ve visited and this time was no exception.

IMG_1805.jpgIMG_1806.jpgThe hourly route 99 down to Kessingland and Southwold was characteristically operated by ‘W’ registration double deckers dating from 2000 giving a travel experience befitting of the east coast resort’s dated image.

IMG_1787.jpgThe bespoke livery variation used in Ipswich looks smarter than plain First Bus colours, if a bit dull, but with seat backs also branded for these operations I fail to understand the logic of where local branding fits into the First Bus strategy. There was a time Corporate HQ told us it was essential to have a nationwide corporate livery so that buses could easily and cost effectively be transferred around the country as needed (in addition to satisfying Aberdeen’s corporate ego). So what’s with the bespoke seats then?

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IMG_1605.jpgIt would be so much better if those Aberdeen control freaks just empowered managing directors to reintroduce proper local branding and really show what could be achieved in tune with the Anglian market.IMG_1599.jpgSadly First Bus still leave a lot to be desired when it comes to detail. I wasn’t impressed catching the early morning 0615 departure on route 64 from Ipswich to Aldeburgh after initially being reassured to find the bus already screened up and waiting on stand soon after 0600 only to find the driver saunter up to the bus at 0622 and load the six of us boarding, one of whom told me it happens every day. IMG_1590.jpgWe finally left ten minutes late at 0625 but by Woodbridge were already ahead of scheduled time so waited four minutes there, a further five minute wait at Wickham Market and finally arrived Southwold two minutes early.IMG_1610.jpgYou can easily take twenty minutes out of the scheduled time for that journey and stop regular passengers having to wait on a cold windy morning for the bus doors to open at the bus station. I tweeted this experience to First’s centralised tweeting operation; obviously didn’t receive any reply or apology, not even an acknowledgement. Frankly a contemptuous way to treat passengers.IMG_1165.jpgThe general impression of buses around Colchester is poor. Neither First Bus or Arriva’s presence in the town is particularly dynamic and enticing. IMG_1246.jpgThe bright spot is the First Bus run Travel Centre located fairly close to the main departure bus stops in Osborne Street. It contains an impressive display of timetable leaflets and even a network route map displayed on the wall (albeit requiring a minor updating, but at least this was admitted by way of a piece of paper stick to it).

IMG_1248.jpgIMG_1249.jpgWhat would really be helpful for passengers is timetables for routes run by other operators to also be displayed. I didn’t visit the First Bus Travel Centre in Norwich this time, but suspect the same policy holds good there too. It wouldn’t cost anything and would do a huge amount to promote public transport use overall, instead of making it so hard for passengers to obtain information.

First Bus are stepping in to cover the withdrawal of the tendered part of Konectbus 88 by extending their Lowestoft to Southwold route 99 (to be numbered 99A) on to Halesworth and Bungay where there will be connections to their commercial route to Norwich. The wheel really has turned full circle here with First Bus, or Eastern Counties, as it was, now regaining territory ceded to Anglian Bus, acquired by Go-Ahead and now throwing in the towel. Talking of Anglian Bus….

3. Active Anglian Independents

IMG_1075.jpgIMG_7003.jpgEast Anglia is fortunate in having a good selection of quality independently owned small bus companies providing key routes across the region. From the expanding Stephensons in the south of the region to Sanders Coaches in the north and many more in the middle.IMG_7107.jpgIMG_1844.jpgJulian Paterson, formerly of Konectbus now owns and runs the excellent Lynx in West Norfolk while Andrew Pursey formerly of Anglian Bus has started and runs Border Bus. I travelled on two of their three routes during my visit this week, the tendered four-journey-a day 521 between Aldburgh and Halesworth and the hourly (with extra morning journeys making for half hourly) 146 running fast between Norwich and Beccles where it competes with the already mentioned First Bus operated X2 and X22. It then continues to Carlton Coalville and Kessingland on the outskirts of Lowestoft before terminating in Southwold.IMG_1622.jpgThe lunch time journey I travelled on out of Norwich had a good seated load of twenty with around a third getting off in Beccles, half in Kessingland and just a smattering travelling all the way to Southwold. The 521 was less busy. In fact it was dire, which brings me to….

4. Suffolk County Council

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 10.29.51.pngI spent most of my time this week exploring Suffolk as well as in northern Essex with only shorter incursions into Norfolk. Suffolk is a delightfuly county but with many transport challenges not least the very low density of population. Aside from Ipswich and Lowestoft and their environs, and the smaller market towns of Beccles, Bungay, Bury St Edmunds, Halesworth, Saxmundham, Stowmarket, Sudbury and Wickham Market, away from the coastal communities of Aldeburgh and Southwold the county is characterised by hundreds of tiny hamlets connected only by circuitous narrow country roads. The rural transport challenge for the county is therefore huge, not helped by Suffolk deciding to save 20% of its £1.7million budget from April.

I read about discontentment with proposals to withdraw some off peak journeys on routes 112/113 which run from Diss (just over the border in Norfolk) to Ipswich operated by Galloway Travel Group (who run extensive coach tours and excursions as well as some local bus routes).IMG_1485.jpgApparently off peak journeys are at risk but I travelled on one of the few peak hour journeys leaving Diss at 1655 and arriving Ipswich at 1808. A deadly quiet Diss bus station is pictured above at 1645 approaching the evening peak. Three passengers boarded with me at Diss all travelling to the village of Eye just thirteen minutes south. For the next hour and four minutes until we reached Ipswich it was just me and the driver.IMG_1561.jpgIt’s not cuts to rural bus routes leaving passengers isolated, its passengers deserting buses leaving the buses isolated and running empty. My journey on the Border Bus operated tendered route 521 at 0855 from Aldeburgh to Halesworth was similarly sparsely loaded.

IMG_1631.jpgWe travelled empty all the way to the hamlet of Benhall Green where at 0929 we picked up four passengers and dropped them off five minutes later in Saxmundham picking a Mum and child up there and dropped her off seven minutes later in Yoxford. The rest of the journey taking around an hour was just me and the driver.

IMG_1857.jpgThe journey on the Konectbus 88 (soon to be a First Bus 99A) between Halesworth and Southwold at 1023 had just two passengers on board while the afternoon peak journey on route 90 leaving Southwold at 1638 travelled all the way to Halesworth via Beccles (a journey of 1 hour and 17 minutes) carried just two other passengers besides me and the driver and then only between the hamlet of Willingham and Beccles – a journey of around ten minutes. Border Bus have announced they’ll be stepping in to run partial replacements for the withdrawn 90 with new services 522 and 524 but with paucity of numbers travelling it’s a bleak future. Unsurprisingly a significant role is played by community transport in this region.

5 Community Transport

IMG_7310.jpgIt’s interesting to see up in West Norfolk one of the beneficiaries of the Stagecoach pull out in Kings Lynn has been West Norfolk Community Transport (WNCT) who’ve expanded their ‘Go to town’ branded bus routes, which now provide a significant part of the town’s bus network. It’s also interesting to see Ben Colson who owned and ran Norfolk Green heavily involved in WNCT who, with the already mentioned Julian Paterson and Andrew Pursey are three key people in making the Anglian bus scene a success. It also shows you can’t keep a good busman down; they just pop up in another exciting bus venture. Indeed Andrew also volunteers on the Committee of the Beccles and Bungay Community Transport who I had the pleasure of spending the whole of yesterday morning with travelling around their Wednesday only three rural bus routes between Halesworth and Beccles, all using the number 532.

IMG_1868.jpgI’d been recommended to travel on the routes by blogger Steve’s Bus & Train Page on Twitter (@busandtrainpage) and how right he was to encourage me to give them a try. I also found out another Twitter stalwart Tim Miller (@banditman59uk) is a relief driver for the route when regular Mick has a day off.

Driver Mick is a real gem. His knowledge of Suffolk is impressively huge. Being a local lad he regaled me with fascinating insights and information about the area as we travelled around.

IMG_1861.jpgThe Wednesday only route 532 really is a ‘lifeline bus service’. Yesterday around a dozen people travelled on the first journey from Laxfield, Heveningham and Huntingfield north into Halesworth for a morning’s shopping and other commitments. Two stayed on the bus for the next journey which runs via Brampton, Willingham, Sotterley, Wrentham, Rushmere and Mutford to Beccles which I joined. IMG_1865.jpgA lovely couple boarded along this part of the route with the husband helping Mick out to provide a commentary by adding historical background to the sights we passed – which were mainly churches – an amazing number too – all told, we passed 21 churches yesterday morning, some with just a few houses nearby. The one pictured below, a paticularly fine example, at the end of the route in Laxfield. As you can see, even the cars park in a colour coordinated way, the village is so pretty!IMG_1884.jpgAfter dropping our four shoppers off in Beccles from that trip it was time for Mick’s third run of the day back to Halesworth via even more tiny micro hamlets and churches (and the odd water tower) including Ilketshall St Andrew, Ilketshall St Margaret, St Peter South Elmham, All Saints South Elmham (you get the idea this used to be a very religously devout area!) and finally Rumburgh and Wissett; we picked up four regulars along the way who all had an hour and twenty minutes in Halesworth before return time, while we continued back to Laxfield to take ten passengers back home who’d come in on the first journey, bringing one regular back into Halesworth on the return.IMG_1875.jpgMick was off back to Beccles via the All Saints route but I left him there having completed the full circuit and having thoroughly enjoyed it too. One of the regulars who boarded in Wissett followed me into the library at Halesworth to find out more about why on earth someone from Brighton was riding around Suffolk’s rural countryside and we got chatting about the problems of rural buses and her concerns at being stranded if Suffolk County Council were to cut this vital once a week route. Apparently it’s up for review soon as the conract ends in the summer.

Encouragingly this minibus had carried the most passengers of all the tendered bus routes I’d travelled on during the last few days and I do hope her fears can be allayed. Suffolk County Council should be well pleased with the support the ‘BACT’ community transport receives from passengers as well as the great personal service Mick provides. Long may it continue. It’s a good example of how buses can continue to provide deep rural transport without the need to come up with new fangled ideas like app based DRT – just fund and run a scheduled low cost once or twice a week community minibus. Sorted.

Indeed the town route 511 in Halesworth is also operated by Community buses, this one by the locally based Halesworth Community Transport.IMG_1887.jpg

6. A couple of final thoughts

Firstly Suffolk County Council are reportedly considering saving £100,000 by ceasing to update and post bus stop timetables and information. This would be a huge mistake. Such information is vitally reassuring particularly for strangers like me to an area. Suffolk’s presentation is excellent – don’t change it.

IMG_1859.jpgSecondly there’s a vital need for East Anglia to follow Kent/Surrey/Sussex’s lead in establishing an all bus operator day ticket like the latter’s Discovery ticket. With a variety of small bus companies and a few larger ones (Ipswich Buses, First Bus and Arriva) it really would make for a passenger friendly way of travelling around rather than having restricted ticket availability to each operator. You need every passenger you can get – don’t make it hard. Perhaps Suffolk County Coiuncil could initiate discussions on such a proposal?

Roger French