Sunday, 17 June 2018

Gt Yarmouth Air Show Park and Ride (South)

(Oh and some trains)

Due to being involved in an RTA Friday night which wrecked my beloved car, though thankfully not me (sorry, Anon, I'll try harder next time) I was unable to attend the Yarmouth Air Show so I'm grateful to Tim for doing the tedious stuff for me. Oh and also for doing the post!! Cheers buddy!

This weekend just gone was the inaugural air show for Yarmouth. It was expected to draw a lot of people and for this a bold transport plan involving up to 100 buses was devised. There were 2 parks North and South with the South being in Gorleston with the route via Beccles Rd. So the intrepid reporter stood by a roundabout to capture as many buses as he could.(400 odd snaps later....). First Eastern Counties were in abundance as the whole thing was masterminded by Mr Chris Speed and his team in a secret location (near the Fish and Grill any free chips ???) and by all accounts it was a successful operation.

Centre of Operations. Pics (c) Chris Speed
The additional buses were provided by Konect, Coach Services of Thetford, Mulleys of Ixworth, Ipswich Buses, Dolphin Travel, Beestons of Hadleigh, Borderbus of Beccles and Belle Coaches.

The " Beast". First time I have seen a bendybus in Yarmouth!

 Also you have heard of the Lone meet "The Lone Ambassador"
Yes Robert was the only one I saw and was chuffed I got a snap of him.

Sunday I turned my attention to the rails. To also cater for the expected influx Greater Anglia laid on special Loco hauled trains with the hire of 4 Class 68's and using their own full Intercity sets of coaches running non stop Norwich to Yarmouth and back. By what I saw they had plenty of room to get people on despite a fair few enthusiasts who wanted to ride and see the loco's. This all ran smoothly too which bodes well for the next time Yarmouth decides to put on a show. 

This is what a full rake with 2 loco's looks like at Yarmouth evoking memories of the summer Saturdays of the boom time when Yarmouth was a big destination from all over the country.(And it was a long old walk!!)

In a rare moment (Thanks Mr Smith ) the 2 sets were together for 5 minutes only. Probably the last time this may happen with the new trains due in 2019. Fingers crossed for another air show next year.
And this is what it was all about for me. The sight and sound of the BBMF Lancaster over Gorleston.

Monday, 4 June 2018


there is a known issue at Blogger that is stopping email notifications of comments which means I'm not receiving them to approve and publish. To that end I have decided to lift moderation restrictions until the fault is fixed. If you have submitted a comment in the last few days can I ask you re-submit it and it will be posted automatically. Obviously there will be some who take advantage of that but I'll delete offensive comments as soon as I see them. Thanks.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Bus Franchising, The Debate Continues

There is an article in a Cambridge Newspaper that has caught the interest of those in the bus industry. Written by Andy Campbell, MD of Stagecoach East, it is an argument against bus franchising and why it wouldn't be financially sustainable. You can read the article here. If I was a shareholder of one of the big operators, or a top bus manager on a six figure salary I would be keeping a copy of that article in my wallet, to glance at occasionally. But I'm not a shareholder of one of the major operators, or a top manager earning a six figure salary. I'm a passenger. I set up this blog to give passengers a voice. Not managers or ex managers, very few of whom use buses, but passengers. As a passenger that article fills me with dread.

One paragraph caught my eye in particular. It was this one;

We want to provide an excellent community service but, as a commercial operation, we simply can’t fund unprofitable routes over the longer term. Doing this would put any business at risk. It would jeopardise the salaries that our drivers, mechanics and office staff, and their families, rely on.

The irony that this was the MD of Stagecoach East, the same Stagecoach East that has just pulled out of Norfolk, rendering drivers, mechanics and office staff jobless was not lost on me. But it paints a bigger picture. What it is saying is if your service has been cut over recent years don't expect it back because we won't consider operating routes that are currently loss making, or even try to turn them around. That is rather depressing if you are a passenger on a low income who can't afford taxis everywhere.

So it won't come as a surprise to you when I say I'm more in favour of franchising than Mr Campbell. Where I do agree with him, though, is that franchising alone is not the answer, but I really believe it's part of the answer. So why am I in favour of franchising? We need to turn the clock back.

When I was a boy I would spend evenings poring over timetables planning days out on the buses. I left Mum an itinerary of my planned movements with the promise to let her know via phone box if anything altered. So let's take one of those days. I would buy an Explorer ticket, which covered all operators in Kent and Sussex, get the first bus out of my village in Kent, around 7am to Chatham, then go to Maidstone - Faversham - Canterbury - Dover - Hastings - Maidstone - Chatham. I'd get home around 10pm having had a great day, mainly on Bristol VR's. So - can that day still be achieved today? The Explorer ticket still exists, but do the bus services. Let's see, I assure you I'm looking the services up as I type.

Well the first bus out my village is roughly the same time at 0639, getting me to Chatham at 0655. There is an 0710 service 101 to Maidstone, arriving 0740, which I'll admit is a lot quicker than when I was a boy, helped by road improvements especially getting into Maidstone (bait set). Now for the 333 to Faversham. Ahhh looks like breakfast in Maidstone as no 333 until 0920. Never mind, we get to Faversham at 1024. An 1106 3X whisks me to Canterbury for 1130, again faster than the old days.

Another improvement is the bus service between Canterbury and Dover, certainly day times. A 20 min frequency operates on the 15 and I hop on the 1152 and I'm in Dover at 1227. This is where it might get interesting. I used to love the 550, which ran along the coast from Dover to Hastings via Folkestone, New Romney and Rye. Can I still do it?

It seems I can. The 102 at 1320, so lunch in Dover, takes me to Rye for 1528, where I need to change buses onto the 100 at 1542 to arrive in Hastings at 1623. Very good, to be honest I wasn't expecting that. Now to get back to Maidstone. Obviously I want some time in Hastings so don't want a bus immediately. There is a 1753 or 1848 from Hastings to Hawkhurst. I'd prefer the 1848 if in Summer so let's try that one - will there be a connection at Hawkhurst for Maidstone? The 1848 arrives in Hawkhurst at 1938 and the bus to Maidstone leaves at...2200. Ahh, not so good. Let's check the 1753 from Hastings, which arrives in Hawkhurst at 1852. The bus to Maidstone leaves at...2200.

The Hastings - Maidstone route 5 used to be a direct route. Then Stagecoach bought Hastings & District, and Arriva bought Maidstone & District so of course the route was split. Now the separate parts don't connect with each other. Where have I heard that recently. Stay in Hastings longer I hear you say - good idea - I'll just check when the last bus to Hawkhurst is. Ahhh, it is the 1848 so like it or not I'm stuck in Hawkhurst for 2 and a half hours, and if you've ever been to Hawkhurst you'll know that is a very, very long time!

So eventually I'm on the 2200 to Maidstone arriving at 2255. There used to be a 2315 to Chatham - is there still - yes, 2310 now but still connects - I'm in Chatham at 2334 - can I still get home? So near yet so far - alas I miss the last bus back to my village by 8 mins. Close but no cigar, and that wait in Hawkhurst would put me off that route. There used to be an alternative route back to Maidstone via Tenterden but sadly the timetable has just been slashed and the last Hastings - Tenterden service now leaves at 1625.

So what did that exercise show. Well, if I'm honest I'm surprised I got as far as I did, and it demonstrates that bus services in some areas are a lot healthier than others. Certainly Stagecoach Southeast seem to be doing their best to maintain services, and they should be congratulated for that, although it must be said I only used routes on A roads linking big towns. The moment I went into the country, although still on an A road I had a 150 min wait. But, it demonstrates that some areas would benefit from franchising more than others. It really says something for the operators, and particularly Kent County Council, that the village I grew up in still has a bus out of it at 0639, and a bus back from town at 2324. That's way later than the last train.

So, on the whole Kent is doing ok. They have an integrated ticket if you need to use more than one operator, and with decent marketing buses aren't in too bad a state down there. Obviously there is always room for improvement, which I'll come to later.

However, Kent is vastly different to Suffolk and Norfolk. Look at those journey times on my trip. Only one of them is more than an hour. It takes an hour and twenty to get from Halesworth to Norwich to start my day, not to mention the 6 mile drive from my village to Halesworth. I would love to see Suffolk and Norfolk timetables from 40 years or so ago to see what I could have done then that I can't do now.

Bus services in Norfolk and Suffolk are in a shocking state at the moment. Don't get me wrong I'm not blaming the operators, well not too much anyway. The operators do not get the support from the councils Kent does, for example. Both Norwich and Ipswich are plagued with never ending roadworks, which seem to improve nothing, making sticking to a timetable impossible. Temporary traffic lights are placed to guard sites the size of a small pot plant with nobody working there anyway. Some routes have 3 operators on them, others none. The passenger is being fleeced to a hefty degree, and no one but no one seems to give a damn, and when someone dares complain they are shouted down.

So would franchising help East Anglia? Hell yes! It is inconceivable that the Council can be expected to subsidise on the scale needed to resurrect the rural bus market without getting some help, and that help would come from the profit making services. If there were more buses going to more places more often people would use them if the price was right. But what would be the benefits of franchising in this area?

Firstly integrated ticketing. Sure it's fine if you have a Concessionary pass - you can jump from operator to operator at will. If you're paying though you have to pay separately for each journey if changing operators. That's expensive and no incentive to use the bus if you have to use more than one operator.

Secondly if services were governed from one place you wouldn't have the ridiculous situation we have now, where operators cannot talk to each other and co-ordinate times for the benefit of passengers. One route, one operator, and where routes merge all tickets accepted on all buses.

Thirdly buses would be run at times to suit passengers not operators. A particular bug bear of mine is services that don't run schooldays because the bus is being used on a school run. There are plenty of services around where the afternoon frequency is less than the morning, due to buses being taken off service work. Again, that is not going to encourage fare payers to use the bus. Franchising would allow public and school buses to be kept separate, so passengers had more choice.

Most services outside the big towns are finished by 7pm. Last bus from Norwich to Halesworth is 1815. Last bus out of Southwold, if you want a day there is before 1800. Where is the incentive for people to use the bus to go to work if they can't stay for a drink with their mates after work on a Friday because they'll miss the last bus if they do? Or have to be out of a seaside resort while it's still red hot? Later buses would solve that problem. When I moved to Wickham Market 10 years ago the biggest box ticked for me was the 2255 bus from Ipswich 7 days a week. I was on it Wednesdays and Sundays, after playing pool for a pub in Ipswich. It was the first bus to go in the 2010 cuts.

They are just a few reasons why franchising would work here, if, and only if the marketing was done properly to encourage bus use. But as I indicated earlier there are other ways which should be tried out.

An idea I've had for sometime now is for bus services to be sponsored by corporate business. After all they sponsor everything from international cricket to brass bands, so why not bus services. Supposing the evening buses from Norwich to Watton, for example, were sponsored by Barclays. Good publicity for them - giving something back to the community - an all over wrap on a bus for their troubles. How about the Government recognising this as a good idea taking heat off councils and giving the businesses a tax break against the money they sponsor services with? Is that such a daft idea? How about town or city traders clubbing together to sponsor the last couple of buses out of town on a Friday and Saturday night, with the council covering the rest of the week. It irks me that there are far later buses on the Outer Hebrides than there are in the majority of East Anglia.

But above all the bus needs to be more attractive. Value for money, frequency, convenience and comfort are all very well, and operators like Transdev have transformed bus travel in the last couple of years. But despite all that it's not going to persuade those who have spent 25K on a new car, or those who have just renewed their insurance, tax and MOT to leave them on the drive and get a bus.

Therefore it needs some real thinking outside the box so people don't feel almost guilty for leaving the car at home. First of all abolish road tax and put it on fuel duty - those who use the roads most pay the most - that's only fare. Cap insurance rates to make car ownership a lot cheaper but bung 10p a litre on fuel to make driving it more expensive. Make driving in towns and cities expensive to make buses the cheaper option through parking tarrifs and congestion charges. More bus lanes, priority traffic lights, roadworks on bus routes only carried out at night unless unavoidable, park and ride sites at motorway junctions.  But, I hear screams of protest, what if you live nowhere near a bus route even after all the improvements? Quite simple. With modern technology councils will be able to tell who lives more than half a mile from a bus route and they would be exempt from the extra fuel prices. That would include places of work, which if they were more than half a mile from a bus route probably wouldn't be in places causing too much congestion anyway. Of course others, including bus drivers, emergency vehicles etc would also be exempt. Please don't write in citing all those who should also be exempt - it's a concept!

All that, with bus services planned around what the customer needs, rather than what would create the greatest profit, and we might still have something to pass down to future generations.

I expect the usual suspects to come out saying I'm in fantasy land, or just moaning again but something needs to be done, and done soon. The current system isn't working, and where areas like Kent are not in as much trouble as areas like East Anglia, there is nowhere that doesn't need improvement. Trouble is - is there the will to make it happen. I doubt from the top of the bus industry, because they quite like their salaries, as I would in their position, so it's up to others to make the noise.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Guest Post - New Stadler Trains for Greater Anglia

A real surprise today when I received an email from Martin, of the East Suffolk Lines Community Rail Partnership, who has been on a visit to the Stadler factory in Switzerland. He has kindly written an extensive report, with some pictures not seen anywhere else. Many thanks, Martin, it was clearly a great trip, and I'm more optimistic about the new trains than I was before I read it. Over to Martin!

We’ve all seen and heard a lot about new trains since Greater Anglia were awarded the franchise for the east a year ago and I’ve been lucky enough to see mock up versions of carriages from both Bombardier (Essex and commuter services) and Stadler (Intercity, and regional services). At the time of viewing lots of feedback was taken and an impressive amount of this from seating to sockets and bikes to bins has all been incorporated into the final designs.

This week I had the privilege to join a small group of community rail, local business leaders and other stakeholders from the region on a tour of the Stadler manufacturing base just outside Zurich to see how the new fleet of Flirt vehicles are progressing. The sums are vast with the new franchise bringing an unprecedented £1.4billion investment on over 1000 new carriages, with Swiss manufacturer Stadler building 378 to include 10 new 12 carriage intercity trains, 24 new 4 carriage and 14 3 carriage bi-mode regional trains resulting in a completely new fleet.

As I travelled on the first part of my journey to Switzerland from Suffolk I was grateful to be travelling on a recently refurbished Class 170 as opposed to a 158 or 156 and this did make me wonder just what would an entirely new train fleet bring? East Anglia has not to my knowledge ever had an entirely new fleet, the existing ones are up to 30 years old and even substituted in some locations with 50 year old loco hauled traction. The promise of ‘Jam Tomorrow’ seemed relevant in some way but if you’ve been stuck in a packed, single car unit on a hot day the concept of an entirely new regional fleet for the first time ever would understandably be met with some scepticism.

After a superb flight with Swiss Air from London City Airport (other airports and operators are available!) we enjoyed a brief journey on a double deck train – a first for some, followed by an equally unique modern trolley bus journey, eventually reaching our base on the outskirts of Zurich.

We were made extremely welcome by the team at Stadler, the new fleet for the east will be their first foray into the UK market with the exception of trams and stock for the Glasgow underground therefore it is obvious that a lot is riding on this project, both for them and Greater Anglia. It is easy to be sceptical about promises in the railway, the industry is often hamstrung by regulation, bureaucracy and the management and operation of the very infrastructure needed to operate the tracks. Sadly some people are often quick to criticise and some fear new technology and innovation. Therefore with as much of an open mind as I could muster, I joined the tour of the Stadler manufacturing and testing facilities, a few miles from Zurich.

Our visit began with a by now somewhat over familiar presentation by Greater Anglia, featuring information and graphics about their new trains and how they will transform the service – this is key to how they won the franchise and they are rightfully proud and excited about their ambition but to many of the public only seeing will be believing.

The factory was akin to a big West End show – as the the tour progressed we saw almost every element of production building up to to an impressive finale and unlike many shows this production certainly lived up to the hype.

We started with a look at the way in which the units are built, aluminium is cut, shaped and strengthened to form the body, not wishing to over simplify the process, a mix of manual labour combined with laser cutting and welding forms the shape of the FLIRT units which although in production for European markets for some years, have had to be re-modelled to fit with the UK’s slightly thinner gauging.

After initial assembly, door and window apertures are cut by laser

At this point I should declare I am not in any way an expert on trains, their design or manufacture and therefore just reporting on my interpretation of the process not necessarily the precise procedures involved. Once the shell is formed to include floors, walls and roof, the apertures for windows and doors are cut by laser and then finished by hand. Then the first of several processes to paint the vehicle takes place.

Taking shape – intercity sets have more white livery at the front with three & four car sets more grey

In a separate factory the wheels or bogies on which the cars sit are manufactured (I did say I’m not an expert therefore I’m hoping the photos here and throughout will give a better insight into the process!). 

Wheel set on which the units sit

As we toured the huge multi level, rurally located Stadler plant it did occur to me that it was like a railway version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory with each floor bringing an even more impressive insight into their technically innovative processes, it was also immaculate – not the type of railway engineering works I’d imagined nor seen before.

Soon we had our first glimpse of a completed body, with the windows – designed to be as big as possible being placed into position. From what I could see they are not set within a riveted frame and therefore unlikely to rattle when a unit exceeds 30mph - but are designed to allow replacement without a complicated, time consuming process.

Glazing being installed

The trains we will see throughout Norfolk and Suffolk are to be powered by electricity on the mainline services (Norwich – Ipswich – London) and these will be twelve car length Electric Multiple Units (EMU’s). The services currently running on branch lines which do not have overhead wires are Diesel Multiple Units (DMU’s), however the new stock will feature combined diesel and electric power with a diesel power car unit within the train added.

First look at a bi-mode unit diesel power car

These power car units have four impressive V8 engines enabling services that could run from Lowestoft to London to be powered by diesel between Lowestoft and Ipswich switching to electric traction for the journey southward into London. The same principle will work between Norwich and Cambridge - Stansted Airport too.

V8 Engine

For most regional services in Norfolk three car units (plus power car) will be used with the East Suffolk Line amongst routes having three and four car (plus power car) units. Trains can also be coupled together to form longer sets although it will be unlikely and not practical to change the specific length of the new stock (such as taking out or adding a carriage) hence the specific order and manufacture of three and four car sets. During our visit we saw these V8 engine power car units assembled for the first time. I understand that as technology moves forward these could even be adapted to run on other fuel sources too.

Inside the power car

As we proceeded on our tour we gained our first glimpse of how the units connect together, how a corridor exists inside the power car to enable movement throughout the train and how the units maximise space by not contracting into a thin shape as they join each other.

The red, white and grey livery looks very smart and will certainly have great impact when the units begin to arrive in our region from mid 2019, although some units are nearly complete, rigorous testing and commissioning will need to be undertaken.

The technology we will enjoy for the first time on rural services includes air conditioning, accessible toilets (for the first time all of the units working the region will have a system preventing effluent discharge onto the tracks), plug and USB sockets, CCTV, electronic information displays, indeed the list goes on, and all of this includes lots of wiring and computer technology. Each unit will also feature a black box recorder similar to aircraft and space has been created to install an onboard digital signalling system once this becomes standard in the UK. The completed trains will also be longer, therefore the doors are situated nearer the middle of the carriage and are twice the width to allow better access.

Computer equipment for installation includes a black box recorder

The train units are lower too and early indications show that over 75% of stations will allow flat floor access onto the train with an automatic platform which comes out from the train to bridge any gap. Of course some stations may need modest modification to maximise access points and with the trains being longer, the positioning of doors nearer to the centre of the units will mean none or only moderate changes to platform length at most stations. The trains will also have sensors fitted connected to GPS to enable selective door opening should a unit exceed the length or stop in the wrong position.

Units are coupled together using these elements in a process which requires lifting one on to the other

View of the more centrally located carriage doors

The drivers cab is equally impressive – with great visibility too. I’ve often wondered just how much vision a driver gets in a 158 or 156 but when in control of this new technology I’m sure they’ll feel like they are in charge of something that combines the Starship Enterprise with an ocean going liner!

Drivers cab view

After a further look around we glimpsed a new fleet of narrow gauge trains for Austria, a number of trams in production and were impressed by an internal stock control system based on weight which ensured every component required from bolts to electrical fittings were automatically re-ordered thus saving time and delays awaiting new components.

After an opportunity to question the design team, it was off to another Stadler facility nearby where we got to see the full majesty of these new units with the power car unit in situ and an idea of just how bright and spacious the inside will be. An external yellow panel will also be added below the cab window to assist visibility. The liveries for the intercity and regional fleet have a subtle difference with more white at the cab end on intercity and grey on the three and four car units.

The actual fitting out of the units with seating, toilets, tables, wheelchair accommodation and, for mainline services, catering facilities are now underway. Based upon the mock-ups and what we saw on our visit these will be quite spectacular and will no doubt be the envy of the entire UK rail network.

Fitting out Inside the new units

Just a word to the Doubting Thomas community – the seating will not be the same as is currently being rolled out on other new train fleets or existing European Flirt vehicles. When talking about the new trains this sadly seems to be the only topic mentioned, rest assured great care and attention has gone into their design and development. We have tried these new seats and what is to be fitted will be more akin to a Rolls Royce that anything old or new on the network today.

Four car unit with power car

In closing, I have to say that the team at Stadler have developed a product for which they are rightly proud, it will revolutionise rail travel in the east and I have no doubt these units will be the envy of the entire UK rail network. We are now just one year away from seeing this new fleet start to arrive on our shores and both Greater Anglia and Stadler should be congratulated on their efforts as this incredible project moves forward.

Front end of regional set with yellow visibility panel in place

Thursday, 24 May 2018

GTR & Northern Trains Meltdown

As has been widely publicised by some, and kept extraordinarily quiet by others, this week has been a nightmare if you are a commuter on Southern, Great Northern, Northern Trains, and especially Thameslink. The introduction of the most comprehensive timetable change in decades has seen a huge number of cancellations, delays, short terminations and massive overcrowding.

The rail industry's response has been lamentable. Passengers - who pay their wages - have been kept in the dark, not knowing what trains are going to run from one day to the next. The mainstream media was all over it for a couple of days - except for those poor souls in the North, but most of them were going for the sensationalist stuff more than highlighting the real problems. The industry media have collectively caught laryngitis. not wanting to upset their mates on the inside.

On top of this the utter contempt shown by GTR towards the disabled (no train must be delayed due to the boarding of a wheelchair) has been downright inhuman. It has highlighted what everyone, including your humble blogger, has been saying in that removing the guards from trains has a much bigger impact then simply who presses the "doors close" button.

So this page is for those caught up in this utter chaos this week to have a voice - relate your experiences, so that I, and others, can force those who are in charge to look at your accounts and do the decent thing and make changes so the passenger is put first.

I will only approve comments relevant to this topic, and appropriate to be read by all. This is important to a lot of people. It needs to become important to a whole lot more.