Thursday, 19 April 2018

Passenger Train to Leiston1

We've all done it - get to the station praying that the train is late as usual and of course the day you want it to be late it's bang on time and you watch it disappear into the ether. Normally there's another one you can catch so it's not a total disaster. However had you missed your train to Saxmundham at Leiston on Sept 10th 1966 you would have had extra reason to grumble and bemoan your fate. That's because the next passenger train wouldn't arrive for over 51 years. (edit: If you missed the charter in 2007 that is) Now that's an inconvenience.

However on Sunday the wait was over, albeit a charter train. What was meant to be a steam train - The Mayflower - was changed to a Class 37 due to gauging issues, not that I was complaining, and on a very murky Sunday lunchtime it hauled 9 coaches and a Class 47 down the branch from Saxmundham to Sizewell. It was quite a sight although I got the impression many of the spectators - who seem to be conspicuously absent at 2am when the test trains come through - were still expecting a steam loco. I was at Saxmundham station at midday to see the train glide through.

West Coast Rail 37569 leads the Mayflower through Saxmundham.
On the rear was 47580 County of Essex, that I last saw in Stowmarket last year. A good compliment to the 37.

47580 on the rear
It was time to head down the branch, and I made a beeline to the level crossing that Tim and I normally use to photograph the test trains, only to find that I was not alone and many others had also chosen that spot. Not to worry though, room for everyone as the charter approached the crossing, which has to be manually unlocked and operated.

The crossing keeper alights the 37
It really was a sight to see the train at this location. Just a shame the sun couldn't make an appearance.

the Leiston side of the crossing
I headed to Leiston but the train beat me to it, and I decided not to go to Sizewell but get in position on what used to be Leiston station platform. There are no fences or barriers to breach, and with one passenger train every 51 years I don't think the risk factor is too great! Anyhow I waited for what we think was the first 47 ever to traverse the branch. You can still see the old sidings from the platform
The siding at Leiston
The 47 waiting to cross the main road at Leiston
And then it came in, the first passenger train at Leiston heading for Saxmundham for over 51 years (edit: Shhh 2007 didn't happen). It felt quite surreal. I just wish I could go back in time to see that station in its heyday, taking holidaymakers to Thorpeness and Aldburgh.

What a magnificent sight.
The train waited a few minutes for the crossing to be locked shut until the next test train makes a visit, and then was gone. Peace descended on Leiston station once more. How long until the next passenger train? I truly hope it's not another 51 years as I can't guarantee to be there! (Or even 11 if I'm honest!)

The Mayflower glides out of Leiston
Tim hot footed it to Saxmundham to capture the train heading back up the East Suffolk Line towards Woodbridge. It would be nice if a few more railtour trains headed this way - we have a lot to offer.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

South East Bus Festival 2018

Saturday saw the annual South East Bus Festival take place at the Kent Showground, Detling, and for the first time in 5 years I made it down there.

Tim and I had always planned to go, but were given a real bonus when I was contacted on Friday by Ross Newman of Ensignbus, who told me my beloved MD60 was going to attend and would we like to go to the event on it. That seemed a good idea, so by 8am on Saturday I had the pleasure of giving Tim his first Ensign experience, which was typified by a burly fitter approaching us, breaking into a big grin, and making sure we had seen everything there was to see. That's what I love about the place. I know operators who make me take down anything to do with them, or depots where you may as well be met with a shotgun. I'm really happy Tim now knows I don't exaggerate about Ensign and their friendliness. Anyhow, our chariot was already in prime position, and soon Paul Almeroth, the Scania's Head Keeper arrived and did all the preliminary checks, and it was time to go.

MD60 ready to leave Purfleet for Maidstone.
In recent months I have been on MD60 on the Ensign Running Day, a couple of weeks ago in service in East London during the DLR strike, and now on a longer motorway run. Same buzz, same astonishing acceleration and ride for a 43yo bus, and the same regret there aren't more of them in preservation. Long may MD60 survive - it's like looking at the last Dodo knowing there will be no more after this one.

We arrived at Maidstone in good weather for a change, and a showground already full of buses and visitors. As we pulled up the one other bus I was hoping would attend honed into view and my day was already complete. Former Maidstone & District dual purpose Leyland Leopard 2816, OKO 816G is another vehicle that holds personal memories for me, one journey in August 1983 in particular. Now owned by Seaford & District it is wonderful to see her looking so good. I tweeted that I needed Elaine Paige belting out "Memories" whenever I see her. I really do! Will anyone ever go as gooey over an E200MMC? Somehow I doubt it!

Maidstone & District 2816
Another ex Maidstone & District bus in attendance was Leyland National 3566 VKE 566S, which is now in private ownership and undergoing a restoration project. Currently in Hastings & District livery it may revert to its original NBC green. It was good to meet Carl Underwood, who owns the National, who informed me that it currently has a Volvo B10M engine. That must sound different!

Ex M & D 3566
 Reading Buses were there, not with their Greenline liveried E400, which is currently awaiting a new engine, but their ex National Express Scania Levante coach. It was good to see Dan again, who was one of my co barrackers on Reading's Top Gear Challenge E400.

Reading Buses Levante FJ67 KJU
It's not just buses at this event - there are exhibition halls full of vintage cars, bikes, trucks, tractors, fire engines, army trucks and just about anything you can think of. Not only that but hundreds of stalls, so while Tim amused himself browsing the stalls I attended a lecture given by the legend that is Ray Stenning. Who I hear you ask? Well you may not know Ray Stenning by sight - and believe me if you did know him you'd know as he's pretty recognisable - but you will know his work. Ray, with his Creating Desire Team, designs liveries. To name a few you can see his work on every Reading Buses bus, Coasthopper in Norfolk, he was the brains behind the First Multi-coloured front scheme, and Transdev's 36 in Yorkshire. He also designed the livery for East Midland Trains HST's, The VTEC liivery and SWT's livery among others. So I wanted to hear what he had to say, and very interesting it was too, especially when I learned he grew up in Maidstone & District land too.

Ray Stenning taking questions after his lecture
A pleasure to meet you, Ray, and keep up your campaign to rid windows of unnecessary vinyl.

It was also good to meet up with my old friend (older than me by 8 months and always will be) Matthew Arnold of Stagecoach Southeast, and also Kelvin Pinnock, owner of  stunning Volvo Ailsa 5385. Actually the green machine wasn't the only Ailsa in attendance, as former London Transport Ailsa V3 was also present.

Ex M & D Volvo Ailsa 5385
London Transport Ailsa A103 SUU
If you remember back to my Ensign post in November you will hopefully remember a bus I featured from Jersey undergoing restoration. Commandeered by the Nazis it is the last petrol engined double decker built in the UK. Well I'm delighted to say the restoration is complete and she's back on the road.

Jersey Leyland Titan SV 6107
It was a really good day, meeting lots of people I knew, and some for the first time. My thanks to Ross and Paul for allowing us to use M60 as a taxi, and Tim for his company. There could be more from Ensign at the end of the week, but I'll leave you with more pictures from the day.

And finally a couple of buses with East Anglian connections. Firstly ex First Norwich and Essex Scania 65586, now part of the Ipswich Transport Collection.

And finally ex Lothian and Ipswich Buses President SN51 AXF, now with Nu Venture of Maidstone.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Reading Buses Part Two - Don't Mention The Tape!

A bit delayed due to the wrong type of circumstances but here is the second part of my visit to Reading Buses a couple of weeks ago. If you can't remember Part One it is here.

We left it with your humble blogger being shown around the engineering side of the operation by Head of Engineering & Innovation John Bickerton, who had something he wanted to show me. Tucked away in a corner of a small workshop was a piece of kit that could, sorry - will revolutionise industry. I have never seen a 3D printer before, let alone what it can do, and if I'm honest my head really can't get round the concept or potential. John can, though, and his eyes sparkled with ambition as he talked about possible futures.

Vases today but bus parts and panels tomorrow?
John can see a future where under the cavernous roof of the main workshop is a band of 3D printers churning out needed parts and panels, reducing the time buses have to stay off the road. At the moment it's not a quick process - those vases took 18 hours each to print, but then again 20 years ago mobile phones were bricks and internet was still dial up so the future may come quicker than we think.

After being shown round the fuel and gas pumps John noted a bus on the pumps and made a beeline for it. It appeared, at first look to be a smart Gemni 2 but all is not what it seems.

Reading Buses 530 X100 RDG
The front may be Gemini 2 but the rest of it is very much Gemini 1, a 53 reg Gemini 1 to be precise. Not that it looks it inside or out. Like Cityzap in the York/Leeds area they have taken a decent but old body (I know that feeling) and turned it into a new bus. This particular bus is used to encourage student design, and the interior is covered with examples. It has tables and a communal seating area, and I'd be very happy to ride it all day! John explained one of the pluses of the tables. He pointed out that if some passengers were facing the back of the bus it cut down on vandalism and antisocial behaviour. Having the communal seat nearer the front also means those who normally frequent the rear seats upstairs were less likely to. Clever.

Table area top deck of the Gemini
Incidentally before I was allowed to take that picture, John made sure there was no litter evident and the vinyl on the window was neat and straight. A sign of a perfectionist.

Now if you were following my Tweets on the day you would have seen me post a pic of an E400MMC asking why I was about to spend over an hour riding around Reading on it out of service. Here it is.

The Emerald MMC
.I mentioned how Reading Buses like to make the staff feel part of one big family. This is a brilliant example. This bus was going to provide the first two "times" of the Reading Buses Top Gear Challenge. Every driver/manager/anyone with a licence has been invited to take an MMC out on a designated lap of Reading, not to see who can do it the fastest, but who can achieve the highest fuel economy. Measured by the telemetics system it is hoped to encourage drivers to drive more economically, which John explained would more than cover the fuel costs of the exercise. What a cracking idea. The only condition is the lap must be done between 0900 and 1500 Monday to Friday so no one can cheat by taking advantage of quiet traffic conditions.

Operations manager David Rouse went first, and considering the heckling he had to put up with from 4 passenger seat drivers, including myself, and the Friday afternoon Reading traffic he did a commendable 8.3km averaging 6.73mpg. Then John showed us how it was done, although it seemed much slower it wasn't, and the clever clogs managed 8.71mpg, setting the bar for everyone else. I have to be honest and I say I have never missed no longer having a PSV licence more than I did that afternoon, as I would have killed to see what I could have achieved. I'll make sure I get the final results. Just another way equality reigns at Reading Buses. Here's John trying to look like a bus driver on his lap! I'm still waiting for the cheque, John, not to publish the first pic I took!!!

Professionalism personified! John Bickerton at the wheel
We adjourned to the control room to get the results, and that was just about it, the end of a wonderful afternoon at a wonderful operator. There was, however, one more thing to do.

My dislike of Streetdecks is well known, but both Martijn and John have always emphasised that their Streetdecks, complete with Sofa and tables were rattle free. I had to try one out, so before I caught the train back to London I did a circuit on the 13 with my most critical hat on.

Reading Buses 901
I started off on the sofa, a funky communal seat behind the stairwell. Specially designed material to feel like the peel of an orange - it actually does - I found it very comfortable.

The sofa on the top deck of the Streetdeck
The other seats aren't what you'd call sumptuous, but unlike new train seats I found the longer I was sat the more comfortable they felt.

Regular seats on the lower deck, nice design
So of course the big question is do they rattle? Were the claims accurate? Well much to my surprise the claims were proved accurate. It didn't rattle. in fact the Streetdeck gave a cracking ride. No, that's not an April Fool as I'm not doing one this year! I thought I'd found evidence as to why they didn't rattle. I took this picture, and tweeted it congratulating everyone for noticing and dealing with rattles.

Thou shalt not rattle!
As a massive anti-rattler I was impressed. However, the reaction to that picture was akin to the reaction in Monty Python's "Dirty Fork" sketch. What? Gaffer tape on one of our buses? You're joking - which bus is it, it's coming off the road now! We only have gaffer tape behind glass for emergency use only!

It would appear that the rule is something like "Our buses shalt not rattle, but not by use of gaffer tape". And that rather sums up Reading Buses. no corners are cut, and if something's going to be done it is done properly without the use of gaffer tape! Most operators would have accepted the compliment about paying attention to rattles. Actually no - most operators wouldn't have given a damn about the rattle in the first place, let alone deal with it, let alone be horrified at how it was dealt with.

So as I mentioned at the beginning of Part One I have nothing to moan about, which is annoying! I will get back to Reading whenever I can, as there is so, so much more to see, and the trials for the 702 continue. My thanks to Martijn, John and everyone I met at Reading buses for being so darned happy and passionate about what you do, and Glen I promise we'll have lunch next time I'm down. Just don't mention the tape - I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it......

Saturday, 24 March 2018

A Bit of Miscellany

Before I settle down to do the second Reading post over the weekend a few things to round up.

Firstly my laptop crisis has been sorted. Thank you, you know who you are. I'm eternally grateful. Sadly though, it won't mean too many extra posts just yet as an elderly friend, without whom I wouldn't be here, needs me more than the transport industry right now. When she is on her feet and back to her indomitable self hopefully output will increase. I'm missing it but friends come first.

Ok onto what's been going on. As you may have read locally Stagecoach are pulling out of Kings Lynn from the end of April. Thankfully most of the routes have been saved but as usual it will be fare payers who suffer, having to pay 2 or 3 different operators to complete a journey that a single Stagecoach ticket would have covered. The only exception to this is the Coasthopper service which will be operated by Lynx between Kings Lynn and Wells, with Sanders then carrying on to Holt, Sheringham and Cromer. Through tickets, issued and accepted by both operators will be accepted. Stagecoach will continue to operate some services, including the popular 505 to Spalding, however the frequency will be reduced from 3 to 2 buses an hour. You can click here to see the full list of changes.

Part of the changes sees First Norwich taking over the X29 between Norwich and Fakenham, which is becoming part of the Yellow Line. As a result 4 ex Leeds Volvo B9tl Gemini2's are being absorbed into the Yellow Line fleet and are currently being repainted at Simon Morris in Ipswich. I'm grateful to Paul Bennett for sending me pictures taken by Rob Freeman at Simon Morris of the first bus to receive the yellow treatment, 36265.

36265 at Simon Morris               pic (p) Rob Freeman
Now, as you will have seen from my various features, bus seats are improving. Well, in some parts of te country anyway. The likes of Transdev in Yorkshire, Reading Buses, Nottingham City Transport and others are putting seats in buses that put some airlines to shame. The opposite, however, is happening to our trains, and it's starting to be noticed. I reported a couple of years ago that the seats on the new Gatwick Express were hard, and the new Thameslink Class 700's and South Western Trains 707's have been labelled "ironing boards". The seats on the new GWR Class 800's have attracted the same criticism, and half hour on one last week when I went to Reading was more than enough.
The Std seats on the new Class 800's
Later this year passengers on Virgin East Coast will find out all the anticipation leaves a hard feeling in the posterior and then it will be our turn on Greater Anglia. No matter how they spin it the seats on the new trains will not be an improvement on what we have. So I have managed to start an official Government Petition on the subject, which is receiving support from some big names in the industry. Early days yet but I am hoping to achieve the impossible - to get better seats retro fitted to existing stock and changes made to the specifications for future stock. A lot of my original wording was changed by the people who approve the petition, for example I certainly did not use the phrase "within the confines of current EU standards"! I urge you to read, sign and publicise this petition. These seats could take away all the fun of train travel, and that would be a terrible legacy to leave. You can see and sign the petition here.

Finally a couple of videos featuring Class 37's. First up is the first ever trip down the East Suffolk Line of te loco hauled Short Set. The line had been closed for 6 days due to the snow in late Feb/early March and the set was sent down to check the line A gleaming 37407 takes it carefully pulling out of Darsham with 37419 on the rear.

Secondly is a Network Rail test train passing through Diss with Colas Rail all blue 37607 on the rear, the first tie 607 has been noted in the area.

That's all I can think of right now. Back with Reading part two soon. In the meantime thanks for your patience with the lack of posts, and I hope normal service will resume asap.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

It's A Bus Depot, Jim, But Not As We Know It!

I am sometimes accused of doing nothing but moan. Those who think that are going to be disappointed in this post as the only thing I can moan about is not having anything to moan about!

One of the universal criticisms of Go Ahead when they took over Anglianbus was thus: "You cannot run a rural depot like a London depot" Ultimately that proved to be correct as Anglian no longer exist. On Friday I travelled to Reading, which although could hardly be called rural is further away from London than my old stamping ground of Gillingham in Kent is. I had been invited to take a look round the home of Reading Buses, and must confess had been counting the days.

I had the opportunity to observe proceedings outside Reading Station for half an hour and must say it is a good place to watch buses. The sun was shining for once, and I got to really appreciate the diversity of colours and liveries that Reading Buses employ, and that every single one of them is subtle, even the brighter colours. Nothing is in your face or garish, and huge credit has to go to Ray Stenning and his Creating Desire team. I also spotted a former celebrity. Remember the famous Bristol "Poo Bus"? Originally a Scania gas bus demonstrator that saw a few weeks with Anglian. it made national headlines when it was revealed tat it had been converted to run on human waste in Bristol. Now back to its original form it is just one of Reading Buses' gas fleet with the appropriate registration BU52 GAS.

Former Poo Bus in Reading
A short walk fro Reading Station is Great Knollys Street, home of Reading Buses. It is vast! But then Reading Buses operation is vast. Over 200 buses are based there, with 500 drivers and 150 other staff making sure all runs smoothly. To put that into perspective Plumstead Depot in Southeast London holds fewer buses.

From the moment I walked through the door one word was to dominate my thoughts, that word being "nice". I can't think of another occasion where the thought "oh, that's nice" went through my head more often than it did on Friday. Take the waiting area at reception, for example.

The waiting area at Reading Buses
It wasn't long before Martijn Gilbert CEO of Reading Buses came down to greet me and take me on a tour. I've worked at a few depots and visited a few depots but this didn't have the atmosphere of your usual depot, and it took me a long time to find the right word to describe it. However, the best way I can describe the atmosphere is one of equality. There was no "us and them" feeling, indeed Martijn told me that there are no restricted areas to anyone apart from the obvious, ie control room, workshops etc. This means anyone is free to talk to and see anyone, and it seems to work. One thing impressed me no end, and that was how everyone greeted Martijn as we walked round, and Martijn in turn knew the first name of EVERYONE we encountered. With a workforce of 650 that is no mean achievement. But Reading Buses go the extra mile to keep their staff happy and involved. The facilities at GKS (Great Knollys Street) include a subsidised canteen, showers, a fully equipped gym, pool tables and even a multi faith prayer room. I was shown the trophy cabinets, full of awards Reading Buses have won, that are displayed in full view of everyone, not hidden upstairs in the boardroom. There are computer bases where drivers can access their rotas and duties, and even print them off. Driver managers are all based close to the control room, which once again enphasises the easy access to management. Ah yes, the control room.

The info wall in the control room
Dominating the control room is a wall with many screens! These screens show live tracking info, live traffic cctv and social media from various sources including the Police and customers. There are 3 controllers, the Operations Manager and roster clerk, and the atmosphere was one of the utmost efficiency combined with never ending banter. I was back in the control room later and nothing had changed.

I was showed the weekly, yes weekly internal newsletter, which contains everything from route changes to fleet news, to customer feedback - positive and negative - to driver achievements, retirements, to welcoming new recruits, the forthcoming week's canteen menu and much else. Anyone can contribute and it also provides a good vehicle for those little messages that would otherwise go on haughty notices. Another really nice touch.

Martijn then took me to the workshops, of which more later, but let's just say the main workshop is gothic! Easily big enough to house a Jumbo Jet the scope for development is huge, of which again more later.

Just one side of the main workshop.
Martijn had something he wanted to show me. If you remember from a few posts ago the Purple route 17 has had some new E400Citi gas deckers. This means that the older E400's are to be redeployed on a new Berry route, which is replacing the Pink route. However before returning to service these E400 are having a complete refurbishment to "as new" standard. Martijn was eager for me to see the comparison as an example of both before and after were in the yard. The difference is quite remarkable, with the refurbished ones boasting new floors, USB chargers, and new seats, with tables upstairs. See the comparisons for yourselves.

the contrasting liveries

Before and after interiors

Added features
Martijn took the refurbished one for a spin round the yard to see if anything rattled - it didn't, although he did spot a couple of things to his dissatisfaction, which he noted for attention. He explained that as Reading Buses replaced with new, those replaced would receive the refurbishment to "as new". It's hard not to be impressed.

It was lunchtime, and Martijn had a full engagement diary, so he left me in the capable hands of - hang on need to get this right - Head of Engineering & Innovation, John Bickerton. Not before organising lunch though, and if you ever wondered what a dynamic bus boss has for lunch I can tell you it's a fish finger sandwich! Seemed right, somehow. John and I plumped for chicken and chips and retired to his office, where we were looked after by the lovely Linda, who put up with my extreme fussiness (no beans/peas/custard please) with a big smile on her face, masking whatever she was thinking. Just something else that was nice!

I had got to know John a little on Twitter, but there is nothing like a face to face chat, and John is one of those people you like instantly, and could just sit back and listen to. John previously worked for Cosworth developing Formula 1 engines and confesses to not being a "bus person" though who he was trying to kid is anyone's guess! He maybe a bus person in a totally objective way, but if you're not interested in the objects you care for you couldn't do anything like the job John does. His attention to detail borders on the obsessive, which is no bad thing. He despises rattles, which makes us blood brothers anyway, and wants everything perfect, yet goes about it in a jovial, relaxed and seemingly stress free way. Again it could be swan syndrome (all seems calm to the eye but don't look under the water) but I don't think so. It gave the impression of someone loving his job, with full confidence in his workforce to get the job done, knowing he has the scope and freedom to utilise the innovation side of his role. A happy bunny!

John gave me a more extensive tour of the engineering side, and again demonstrated the way employees are made to feel part of the team. There is a machine shop, where anyone is permitted to bring in projects from home, as long as they can be carried in. That keeps the machines from suffering from under use, which John said was a bigger threat than any damage that might be caused. The team are happy to refill staff's car air conditioning, a gesture of goodwill that in turn generates goodwill, which reaps its own benefits. Just another way staff can feel they're not restricted to just their particular department.

The other side of the main workshop.
I hadn't intended this to be a 2 part post but there is so much more to write about I'll be up all night, so I'll post what I have now and do part 2 over the next few days, including why I spent an hour riding around Reading on an out of service E400MMC!