Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Railways HAVE Gone DOO-Lally

Before you read this post if you are not aware of the details of the ongoing dispute at Southern Trains over the role of the Conductor please click here and read my earlier post on this topic.

Today's post was meant to be a review of the Thameslink Class 700, and a nice hour at St Albans. However, as I travelled down to my hospital appointment in East Grinstead I noticed who I assumed was the Conductor not doing much at stations, so I decided to be nosy. There followed a half hour chat that left me searching how I was going to describe what's happening at Southern in a calm, rational manner.

When the 375's were introduced at Southeastern, and the identical but differently classed 377's at Southern the role of the Conductor was safe It was taken that operation of the doors would be the same as the Networker - ie the drivers released the doors and the Conductor closed them, the difference being that with the Electrostars the Conductor could close the doors from anywhere in the train, but ironically not the rear cab as they had to on the Networkers. This was soon changed as the union reasonably pointed out that the Conductor needed a safe bolthole where he could still perform his door duties if needed. It was no problem the drivers releasing the doors as they were in the best place to know if the train had stopped in the correct place. The only units the Conductor released the doors were the God awful Class 508 corned beef tins, and if you were halfway through a complex ticket in the front coach, then had to dash to the rear cab to release the doors it could cause delays and frantic pressing of buttons by passengers thinking they were going to be trapped! But on the Electrostars the role of the Conductor was preserved. Yes it took a short strike to protect our role but protected it was, and on Southeastern remains so.

Not so on Southern. I watched the "Conductor" put his key in the door control panel, wait for the doors to be released, open his door, walk out and look up and down the platform, get back in, take his key out and sit down. The doors then closed and the train moved off without him doing a thing.

It turns out that on the East Grinstead line the drivers have been closing the doors for 6 weeks now, longer on some other lines. In fact on all 377 operated routes the driver closes the doors. The Conductor is no more. The On Board Supervisor has been brought in regardless of union and public opinion. The sole reason the OBS had to observe the platform was in case a wheelcchair needed assistance. What a waste of a man who was guarding when the slamdoor EPB's were still running some 30 years ago.

He told me the role had been downgraded so much he was sent on routes he had no knowledge of, something a Conductor would never do as they need to have extensive knowledge of the routes they work. He was meant to do commercial duties but since he hadn't been trained up on the new ticket machines he couldn't do that. It was likely the last journey on his duty would have no staff but the driver as the duty was too long and hadn't been agreed by the local union committee, whose sole job is to scrutinise duties to make sure they are legal. The trouble is the impasse between Southern and the unions remains, despite the OBS being implemented regardless of union and indeed public opinion. The operator no longer recognises the union apparently, the union doesn't recognise the role of the OBS yet their members are forced to undertake the role.

I asked about the ASLEF vote, which should be complete at the end of this week. the OBS's view, as I assume I must refer to him as now, was that outside London, where DOO is prevalent, it would be rejected point blank. but the fact that drivers have accepted and are prepared to work trains effectively with no second competent member of staff on board means the union's ground is now very unsteady. They can hardly now refuse to operate trains with no Conductor when they are already doing so. No wonder ASLEF and RMT aren't the best of friends right now.

Of course this is Go-Via, part of the Go Ahead group, and a lot of people in East Anglia will be well aware of their tactic of stampeding new policies in riding roughshod over unions and public opinion, then wondering why things aren't working out well.

The overall emotions I detected from this chap were a mixture of bitterness and resignation. We spoke about how we had both saved lives on trains, and other duties that will no longer be performed or required. The fact is if Southern are already running trains DOO, which if there is no OBS on board they will be then how long before retiring or leaving OBS's are not replaced? Eventually Southern will get their wish and all trains will be DOO and my God they'll lose a lot in revenue.

And the ultimate perversion? If you board a 12 car 377 from East Grinstead at Oxted chances are it will be driver only, or at most a chap looking out to see if there's a wheelchair. If you board a 2 car 171 from Uckfield at Oxted it will have a fully qualified Conductor on board. Makes perfect sense.

I'll have the ironically driver only Class 700 review later this week.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

March In February

Or February in March if you like. Either way it's jolly cold! As predicted in the last post on Saturday Tim and I drove to the Cambridgeshire Fens to watch the East Coast Mainline diverts. We intended to use March as a base but also go to a couple of quieter places as we both have an aversion to too many cameras in one place. It was my first time driving across the Fens and it was rather fun - lots of Acle Straights minus the traffic! Our first port of call was a level crossing just down the line from Manea Station, of which more later. This is a crossing with a 7ft underpass for cars and a manual crossing for larger vehicles. The crossing keeper reckoned there were over 150 trains on his shift so he wouldn't have needed the gym that night!

There was also a much unexpected sign at the crossing. No idea how it got there but it made for a good Twitter "Where Am I" quiz!

Just in case of Welsh tourists obviously!
We saw a couple of trains there then drove into March for personal needs - that cold gets to you! A bit busy for us but timed it perfectly to get a Virgin HST and Hull Trains Adelante passing each other, as well as the HST set using East Midlands Trains power cars. But we wanted somewhere quieter so headed off to Manea Station, which is where the last in this first set of vids was taken.

Manea is a lovely little station only served by the Greater Anglia Ipswich - Peterborough service. Two car length platforms which are rather exposed to the elements, and there were certainly elements when we were there! However the station iis maintained by the Manea community and there is quite the quaintest waiting room I think I've ever seen. It looks like a shed.

Yes that is a solar panel which activates the light sensitive light inside. Ah yes inside, well think doctor's waiting room really...

The information available is incredible. Up to date magazines are on the table, including RAIL magazine. the one thing missing though was a heater - something to think about maybe as had there been heating we'd have stayed there all day!

But hats off to the Manea community. We are really hoping there are more diverts when it gets warmer as we will be back!

But back to the trains and Manea was the perfect spot for watching the diverts.

Now some of you will know I'm not a fully paid up member of the Class 66 fan club. However just occasionally one turns up that even I think is ok. Multicoloured 66718 passed by as a treat, and I thought would be followed almost immediately by a Grand Central Adelante going the other way. however the Adelante approached and passed at snail's pace for some reason so feel free to fast forward!

Finally just to prove that Grand Central can go a bit faster...

Despite the cold it was a really good day. Thanks to Tim for his company, and now I'm really going for it and travelling by Southern Trains tomorrow! Report if I ever get back!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

No News Is No News!

Man is it dead out there. Nothing to report, nothing on VOSA, no new buses, no new trains, no new anything. Nothing, zilch, zip, zero, diddly squat!

It's so dead at the moment yesterday I went to see an operator begging for something newsworthy. After a bit of head scratching the MD said "well we had a bus MOT'd this morning...." That was it! So I hope you'll understand why there hasn't been a flood of posts recently. Even the predicted snow is going to be a non event. So with nothing local to report here are a few things you may be interested in.

Steady yourselves for the shock but Cambridge have some new buses on the Park & Sit In Traffic service. I have never worked out why P&R buses have to be painted in the most gaudy liveries. Yellows, pinks, oranges, greens of course, purples - and all for what? Anyway Stagecoach East have continued the trend by painting their new P&R E400MMC's in orange - assuming that car drivers can't spot their bus as easily as regular passengers I guess. I am grateful to John Taylor for sending me a couple of pics he took of the new buses. Many thanks, John.

The new E400MMC's on Cambridge P&R
I also believe that there are new E200MMC's for Chelmsford P&R. Can't wait to see what new buses First get for Ipswich P&R! No stop laughing I'm serious!

With all the talk of the possibility of one or two light snow flurries, which will inevitably see everything grind to a halt as usual, I thought I'd share some real snow with you. A couple of days ago Railcam started streaming a camera located in Finse, a small Norwegian town on the Oslo - Bergen rail line. Now these guys have serious snow and guess what - the trains not only run but on time! It is a stunning camera and worth a watch. If you go via the Railcam site the departure times are listed  If you're not a member of railcam you can view the camera by clicking here, but it will be pot luck if you see a train! Here is the 1134 to Bergen this morning, which was 8 mins late, but imagine how late it would have been here! Incidentally the shed the train is heading into is exactly that - a shed built over the points so they don't get clogged with snow - there is one at the other end of the station too. Ingenious yet simple.

Now that's snow! The webcam at Fince station, Norway
I did a bit of research into fares on that line, which takes over 7 hours from one end to the other. A standard single is around £89, but I checked a month from now, when apparently the snow is far greater, and I found singles at £23 and £30. For a 7 hour journey that's not bad at all and worth serious consideration. Many thanks, Railcam for sharing this quite magnificent location.

Coming home again and due to some strong winds last week Dawlish put on one heck of a show. I think it's the roughest I've ever seen it and I got some cracking stills. Here is a selection, with the usual thanks to Simon and the team for allowing me to reproduce them here.

A GWR HST heads nto the train wash at Dawlish
A local train is swamped by the sea
A Pacer gets a pasting - could be a Turner!
Lord only knows what it's like being on a train in those conditions but by heck I want to find out!

On Saturday Tim and I are going to freeze our extremities off by going to observe the East Coast Main Line diverts between Ely and March so look out for a post Sunday on that, and Monday I have my eye check up at East Grinstead, and I'm thinking of training it this time as I want to get on one of Thameslink's new Class 700's among other things so again there will be a post on that if it happens.

In the meantime to all you bus enthusiasts my apologies but apart from a bus being MOT'd there's nothing happening!

Oh - if anyone knows the fuel consumption of a Volvo B9tl 2 axle let me know please! Thanks.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

E400City Road Test, Comparison & Opinion

It's all very well getting privileged rides on demonstrators, and I truly appreciate them as it's good to get as many opinions from as many different angles as possible. It's important to hear what the engineers think, as they have to keep the vehicles on the road. But it's equally important to hear what the drivers think as they have to sit in them day in day out, and I provide the passenger's judgement.

So this morning I drove to Wangford, had an argument with a resident about the legality of parking by unmarked bus stops (it's legal) and waited for the E400City demonstrator to come in. This particular driver and I go back the best part of 28 years, when we were both working in the Dartford area although at different depots, so I knew I'd get an honest appraisal of the E400.

The verdict was "I've driven worse". Thinking about it that is the perfect summary for this bus. There are some good points but also some niggly frustrating ones too that could be solved with a bit of thought. Banging ones knees on the dashboard isn't good, even if you are on the tall side. The steering wasn't enthused over, nor the delay in the retarder releasing. It's those sort of things I could never know just by riding them, and I think manufacturers should consult with drivers a lot more than they currently do.

The more I travelled on it the more I realised that the ride was distinctly uncomfortable.  It looks great, sounds great and the layout is brilliant. Yet I was still left thinking it could, and really should have been so much better. Who, for example, thought non stick tables are suitable for buses! The moment the bus turns or brakes whatever is on the table goes flying! The rear seats upstairs are amazing, yet there is no bell push in reach - the nearest one being in the rear of the seat two rows in front. Why does the heating panel in the stairwell get extremely hot the second the heating is turned up? Why is the suspension so rubbish! However, I wanted a second opinion and so I met up with Cameron Robinson at Norwich and we rode back to Thurton on the demonstrator.

I was particularly pleased it was Cameron as we rarely agree on anything. He thinks buses I loath are great and vice versa. But most importantly he is young and doesn't carry the rose tinted specs about the past I do. He missed out on Bristols, Metropolitan Scanias, Leyland Nationals et al. Cameron was born into a world dominated by Darts, Tridents, Flolines etc and so I wanted his opinion of the E400City. Lo and behold he agreed with me, that it was ok but could be so much better. However, there was a more important test. We alighted at Thurton, crossed the road and caught the X22 back to Norwich.

The E400City demonstrator at Thurton     pic (c) Cameron Robinson
If you cast your mind back to November 2015 I ventured up to Scotland to try out as many new buses as I could, only to reach the conclusion that the best bus around was the Gemini 1 bodied Volvo B9tl. So we put that theory to the test by jumping straight onto 37563, deliberately to compare it to the E400City.

37563 at Beccles            pic (c) Zak Nelson
The bus was virtually full when we boarded, yet roared away up the hill from Thurton putting the E400 to shame. It was also quieter, much quieter. Not a single rattle, a smooth ride making typing on the phone easier and even Cameron was in no doubt that the Gemini wasn't just better, but markedly better. Now for the statistic that is either impressive or worrying depending on your viewpoint. The demonstrator has done around 7,000 miles and I have a feeling could be a complete wreck in 6 months. When we got to Norwich I asked the extremely friendly driver of the X22 what the mileage of the Gemini was. I thought it would be high but even I wasn't expecting to hear 766,000 miles. That's round the world almost 30 times. The demonstrator has barely crossed the Atlantic.

So yet again I have to ask WHY a bus 8 and a half years old with 766,000 miles on the clock is better in just about every area than a brand new bus, built for an exhibition. What can't we do now that we could then. Even Wright's own newer bodies are no match for the Gemini 1. I was so pleased it wasn't just me though, and someone from the younger generation agreed with me. Thanks, Cameron - perhaps I'm not quite the grumpy old man I thought I was and my dissatisfaction with new buses might be justified. As for the E400City - well as the driver said - I've been on worse.

Cameron also came up trumps later in the day. As we came out of Norwich on an E200 that Cameron noted rattled less than the demonstrator (BB60 BUS) we saw Yarmouth Transport liveried Volvo B7l 59 on a very rare outing on the X1. Cameron did some digging and found a pic taken in Yarmouth by Simon Austin who has kindly agreed to allow it to be published here. Thanks Simon.

First Yarmouth 59 on the X1 today.      pic (c) Simon Austin
It has also been reported that former Ipswich Buses MD Jeremy Cooper, who left the Suffolk operator at the end of last year has taken up the position of Acting Commercial Manager at Anglian/Konect. As yet that's all I know but also of note is Ipswich Buses are yet to advertise for a replacement MD. If I hear anything else of substance I'll report it here.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

E400 City Debuts At Borderbus

This was not meant to happen. Still trying to shake off the most stubborn of viruses I woke from my slumber yesterday afternoon, yes afternoon, to find an email from Lord Pursey of Beccles telling me an ADL E400 demonstrator had arrived at Borderbus. Not everyday Suffolk gets a taste of the future so knowing I'd suffer today for it I ventured over to Ellough Industrial Estate to have a look. And rather pleased I was to have made the effort as she is a bit of a stunner.

The E400 City demonstrator SN66 WLK
SN66 WLK was built for the 2016 Euro Bus Expo and so, as you would imagine is rather flash inside. Novel features include bell pushes in the backs of seats, and tables with USB charging points as decorations. Also probably the most attractive back seat on a decker ever, although Lord knows how hot it will get in Summer

I mean look at that!!

As is customary on these occasions we went out for a drive, although it was limited to Colin and myself as management were driving school buses! First noticeable element was the power. The Cummins engine living up to its reputation and giving much more power than either the Streetdeck or Metrodecker. Top speed attained was 64mph, and the engine noise on the lower deck at speed was pleasingly quiet. Even managed to sound like an Olympian which is no bad thing. Braking was smooth and quiet, and anything that makes Colin's braking smooth has to be applauded! But, and it is  a but, I still don't think the overall ride matches the Metrodecker. It wasn't as easy to type on - an essential test these days, and the suspension not as comfortable. Rattles were minimal but somehow I always felt on edge expecting one to appear any time. The aircon is typically noisy as all ADL buses are, and something has to be done about a very hot panel in the stairwell which I wouldn't want any small child of mine to touch.

Bell push, USB point and drinks tray all in the seat!
Having said all that, though, the E400 City is a very nice place to be. Granted not everyone will have it as high spec as this demonstrator but I liked it. I just wish the final push had been made - still too much shiny cheap plastic, flimsy destination screen door, and why oh why aren't the non coach seat seats more padded? Anyone downstairs rightfully moving to the back to give the more aged passengers the front seats suffer as the rear seats are far inferior. The bus is good, very good, but you are left with the feeling that it could be excellent with just a bit more application and thought.

The Borismaster style cockpit front upstairs
cctv screen showing top deck set in panel reflecting staiwell
In my opinion the E400 City is the best looking bus on the market right now. The engine is the most powerful, but over all I would still buy the Metrodecker and maybe put the Cummins engine in it. What was noticeable is that the good and great at Borderbus were only comparing the E400 with the Metrodecker. The Streetdeck didn't get a look in having failed to impress in any aspect. The E400 City is here for at least a week and will be out on the 146 on the longest duty. My thanks to Andy, Dave and Colin for the usual welcome and natter. I'm suffering today but it was worth it!

Also arriving in the region yesterday was another Class 37 for the Short Set. The stunning 37424 didn't last long, needing more work done on it, 37405, which was extremely reliable before it went away for a service came back and promptly failed. 37422 has gone back up North and so the temperamental 37419 has been awaiting a new partner, which arrived yesterday int the form of 37403 Isle of Mull, another large BR logo painted beast, complete with West Highland Terrier, which has been on the Cumbrian Short Set over the last couple of years. Great to see her down here, and many thanks to Grahame Bessey of East Norfolk Bus Blog and Harbour Radio for getting to Lowestoft early this morning and sending in some superb pictures of her. Cheers Grahame

37403 at Lowestoft       pic (c) Grahame Bessey
37403 heads the Short Set at Lowestoft           pic (c) Grahame Bessey
37403 Ilse of Mull and its dog - the West Highland Terrier.         pic (c) Grahame Bessey

It has transpired that 37403 lasted one trip before failing and as I type 37403/405/419 are all on their way to Crewe so right now there are no 37's at Norwich and Short Set is redundant. Those pics above could become collectors items. More info as I get it.