May’s new timetable on track: Part 3

Thursday 23rd May 2019

IMG_7635.jpgI headed north from Newcastle to Edinburgh with Cross Country first thing yesterday. It’s always a pleasure to travel on this stretch of the East Coast Main Line (No 17 in my Hundred Best Train Journeys) especially with the late Spring early morning sun shining across the bays and coves as the track hugs the coastline for long stretches of the journey near Almouth and on to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

IMG_7493.jpgArriving in Edinburgh soon after nine I wanted to celebrate the completion of the incredible investment Transport Scotland, Network Rail and ScotRail have made in electrifying the various lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow over the last few years as well as the more recent widespread introduction of the splendid new Class 385 electric trains.

IMG_7503.jpgI blogged three weeks ago about my journey from Glasgow via Shotts to Edinburgh on a diesel train prior to the upgrade to new electric Class 385 operation which began with this week’s new timetable, and it was noticeably a real step up improvement to travel back the other way to Glasgow yesterday morning on the same line.

IMG_7505.jpgThese new Hitachi trains have been well designed and give a wonderful smooth ride with impressive acceleration. I reckon the new timetable could easily be tweaked to save a few more minutes journey time as a result of the new trains. Another bonus is the seats are fairly comfortable, more so than the much heralded Azuma.

Last month I caught the hourly semi-fast journey but this time I caught the slower all stations hourly stopper as I particularly wanted to explore the anachronism that is Breich.

IMG_7786.jpgAs I described last time, this station was proposed for complete closure by Network Rail a couple of years ago to save the cost of upgrade work as part of the electrification project.

As a reminder, only one morning train to Edinburgh used to stop at Breich plus just one afternoon return train. Not surprisingly passenger numbers were pitifully low, averaging just one a week. There are no houses, shops or anything at the isolated station site with Breich village (population 210 in 2013) a ten minute walk eastwards along the A71 (see map) served by an hourly bus service. Network Rail was therefore naturally inclined to avoid spending the reported £1.4million upgrade and put up a good case for full closure.

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 17.26.56In the event not only was there an about turn and all the upgrade work went ahead but this week’s new timetable includes a best ever hourly service (two hourly on Sundays) with Breich promoted to an all stations stopper train throughout the day.

IMG_7521.jpgI was intrigued to see what a £1.4million upgrade to cater for one passenger a week buys you and what the potential is for doubling or even trebling passenger numbers as a result so stopped off the stopper at Breich and had an explore.

As you’d expect it all looks rather new and pristine if somewhat basic. There’s nice newly extended platforms (so plenty of elbow room for all those newly attracted commuters to wait) with all surfaces enjoying well laid tarmac, paving and tactile surface/yellow line warnings .

IMG_7517.jpgThere’s a long tarmac surfaced sloping walkway down to each platform from the traffic light road junction where the main ‘entrance’ to the station is sited.

IMG_7523.jpgThere are also some steps down from a side entrance a little way along the A71 towards Breich village which has been given a nice pink coloured stone chipping surface to contrast with the tarmac surfaces.

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IMG_7638.jpgThere’s a shelter with a bum perch to lean against, a bank of four seats in the open, a help point, a smartcard reader, a train departure sign, a two/four frame timetable board, two cctv cameras and four loudspeakers on each platform.IMG_7512.jpgIMG_7513.jpg

IMG_7514.jpgEach platform shelter has a hearing loop for the internally sited speaker and a spot alongside the bum perch where a passenger using a wheelchair could wait.

IMG_7730.jpgAnd that’s it.

No litter bin liner to flutter (saves someone coming to empty it) and no ticket machine. No cycle rack. No grit bin. No onward travel poster. No permit to travel machine. Nothing more.

IMG_7509.jpgI’m not an expert on these things and I appreciate it all adds up, but it doesn’t seem much for £1.4million to me.

I thought I’d take a look at the potential for passenger growth now there’s been a zillion per cent increase in service provision.

As mentioned the immediate vicinity around the station is a bit barren. There’s a branch of W & J Allardyce Commercials Ltd at the traffic light junction of the A71 and A706, but nothing else nearby.

IMG_7634.jpgBut Breich itself is not too far away. It took me just under ten minutes to walk along the slightly rough footpath along the A71 to reach the village.

IMG_7527.jpgIMG_7565.jpgA bus on BlueBus operated route 77 passed by on its way to Lanark – there were few on board.

IMG_7558.jpgSadly the Village General Stores has closed and even the For Auction sign had given up.

IMG_7567.jpgMost depressing of all is the state of the four village bus stops and timetables. Only one shelter looked half decent which at least you could see out of. The contrast with platforms 1 and 2 couldn’t have been more stark.

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IMG_7572.jpgIMG_7579.jpgIf Breich is going to enjoy a public transport boom you’d think a couple of hundred quid out of the £1.4million could have stretched to revamping the bus stops and shelters and updating the dubious five years old departure information.

And even installing a bus stop close to the station entrance.

There’s talk of more housing being developed in Breich (to justify the upgrade expenditure) but I wouldn’t get too excited. I took a look at the recently approved West Lothian Local Development Plan and this does indeed confirm there are six sites adjacent or within the Breich micro community which are earmarked for possible future development as residential use. But the number of units in total is just 118, so even if that sees Breich’s population double over the next ten years to around 400, or even 500 tops, use of the sparkly new rail station is not exactly going to beat records.

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 20.28.37.pngTalking records, my hot tip would be Breich achieving the enviable double of holding the record for ‘the least used station with the most frequent train service’ as well as ‘the highest investment per passenger use’ in the 2019/20 stats. Quite an accolade.

IMG_7522.jpgMeanwhile I wandered back to the station including the delightful four minute Woodland Walk (with views of the train tracks) ….

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IMG_7602.jpg…. after my hour’s exploration of the village to catch the next train to Glasgow and noticed the departure screen on platform 1 was wrongly and confusingly showing the next train was to ‘Edinburgh only’….

IMG_7726.jpg… whereas that departs from platform 2 and stops at all stations rather than ‘only’ ….

IMG_7736.jpg… which after that train had departed from across the tracks then showed my train also as non-stop (rather than all stops) to Glasgow. Maybe £1.4 million wasn’t enough to get the signs working properly!

IMG_7506.jpgI tweeted ScotRail to let them know so hopefully these unfortunate errors will be corrected, lest the weekly passenger gets confused.

And finally, just to help the passenger statistics, as my All Line Rail Rover wouldn’t have registered my alighting and departing, I splashed out on a ticket for today’s adventure. So that’s one more passenger journey generated.

IMG_7807.jpgAfter a short break to savour the fine city of Glasgow I headed back down to London all the way on the West Coast Main Line and as always thoroughly enjoyed the journey particularly the fantastic views of the Borders, the Pennines and the Lake District (it’s No 7 in my Hundred Best Train Journeys).

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IMG_7810.jpgAnd it’s always impressive to arrive into Euston spot on time, which we did, after a four and a half hour journey – helped by a little padding at the southern end no doubt!

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After a quick overnight back at home to attend to a bit of important business first thing this morning…

… it was back up to London and on to Leamington Spa to travel with the consistently good Chiltern Railways. My All Line Rail Rover doesn’t allow a pre 1000 departure from Kings Cross, St Pancras or Euston (on LNER, EMT and Virgin Trains) and as I’d used Liverpool Street on Monday, Marylebone was the obvious choice to start today’s northbound travels off.

This morning’s 0910 departure to Birmingham Snow Hill was just two coaches which proved a tight squeeze for us all – especially as this line is proving an increasingly popular alternative to Virgin Trains.

It was also switched from departing platforms 4-6 (Boarding area A) over to platform 2 then when we got there, back to platform 6 so we all added to our step count wandering around Marylebone in search of the train.

At Leamington Spa I wanted to try out the new hourly through train to Nuneaton West Midlands Railway have introduced this week by cleverly joining two separate services together in Coventry.

Last time I travelled on this line to Coventry to visit the newly opened Kenilworth station it was on a (single coach) Class 153 but this morning it was a smart refurbished ex London Overground Class 172 train which I see at long last have been replaced this morning down in Gospel Oak with the long awaited Class 710 trains going into service. About time too!

The linking together of these two services provides handy connections across Coventry without the need to change trains. It applies on Mondays to Saturdays but not Sundays.

On the 1102 from Leamington Spa we had a decent 23 on board arriving into Coventry and five stayed put to travel through towards Nuneaton – so not bad for a mid morning on the first week. We replaced the departing 18 passengers with 23 new boarders and headed off gingerly crossing all four tracks of the busy Rugby to Birmingham lines – one of the challenges of the new arrangement- finding safe paths to cross in both directions.

It’s a welcome timetable addition and I’m sure it will encourage more journeys as awareness increases.

From Nuneaton (pictured above) I headed up to Rugeley Trent Valley station with London Northwestern Railway on a Class 350 train (heading to Crewe) as I wanted to catch a West Midland Railway train from the terminating platform there and back into Birmingham on what’s known as the Chase Line.

This half hourly service via Cannock and Walsall has hitherto been a West Midland Railway diesel train operated service but from this week has Class 350 electric trains allocated which is a nice bit of new electrification.

However it’s caused some brand confusion as the trains continue on to either Birmingham International or as a stopping train to London Euston (and the journeys interwork at Rugeley Trent Valley) and are therefore branded London Northwestern Railway.

The stations on the line have recently been branded in the orange colours of West Midlands Railways. So it’s a WMR station with LNR trains. Simple.

And it’s all part of the one West Midlands Trains franchise. The Company have produced a guide for staff explaining the background to the timetable changes which explains what to call trains that originate from one branded station and terminate at the other. It explains “here’s a handy guide to stop you getting your LNRs and your WMRs mixed up”. Maybe us passengers could have a handy guide too!

The Class 350 LNR trains have a First Class section so these are marked in the timetable as LN and with a 1️⃣ to differentiate them from more local journeys, marked WM, which don’t. I used the 1️⃣ bit from Rugeley Trent Valley to Birmingham and sat in splendid isolation.

Still, it’s good to see more electrification being introduced if a bit confusing who’s running it, and more cross city services in Birmingham a bit along the lines of Thameslink!

And that completes my three-part four-day ride-round round-up of May’s rail timetable changes. Unlike 2018, I reckon this year’s changes are looking good.

 

And finally, thanks for reading this my hundreth blogpost, especially if you’ve been travelling along since blogpost number 1 almost a year ago on 20th June 2018.

Roger French

Cumbrian travels between LNER and Virgin

Tuesday 30th April 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger French