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Saturday, 16 May 2020

What Happens Now?

I hope wherever in the world you're reading this you are safe, well, and somehow getting through this planet changing episode in our history. These are strange and worrying times, and one has to wonder what happens now. If you have lost a loved one during this crisis my heart goes out to you - I've seen my Mother change from a vibrant, chatty, active if slightly batty and clumsy woman into a bed bound shell uttering a few incomprehensible sounds and not recognising anyone in the space of a couple of months. Thanks to lock down there has been no escape from it - not allowed to do anything or meet anyone to take minds off what's going on. That's tough. However, this is a transport blog so I'm going to concentrate on that side of things.

It's now two months since I've been on any form of public transport. I have absolutely no idea when I'll morally be allowed on it again. I'll be surprised if it's this year. I have a car so I'm expected to use it instead of public transport. Unless I want to go to London, of course, where the message is don't use public transport but don't drive either as we're hiking up the congestion charge and closing numerous roads so people can walk and cycle more. From places like Colchester and Milton Keynes no doubt. Go back to work if you can't work from home, but don't use public transport or your car to get there if your work happens to be in London. I have news for the people coming up with this advice, and I'm sure Sadiq Khan's dad would back me up - very few people take short bus journeys in London at peak times. The huge majority of City commuters, for example, walk to and from stations like Liverpool Street, Fenchurch Street, Cannon Street and Blackfriars anyway! They've been cooped up in offices all day and will be, or rather used to be packed into trains and tubes for another hour or more so they welcome the walk in between. Closing off roads will give them more room, but will not increase the numbers walking, or decrease the numbers needing to use buses as from my observations most bus journeys to and from work in London are too darned long to walk both ways, and not everyone is a born cyclist. The days where folks would jump on the platform of an RM and go a few hundred yards before hopping off again are long gone. I live in the country, yet I walk further in London than anywhere else, despite the transport system it has.

But what's happening outside London? Well, trying to get information out of bus operators isn't easy. Those that respond don't want to be quoted. However, it would seem that between 50 - 60% of the nation's bus fleet is currently SORNed. Heaven only knows what that figure is in the coach industry. The buses that are on the road have strict social distancing rules, so capacity is around 20% of usual. With the best will in the world no one can make any money operating at 20%, especially with the populace being told to avoid your product like the, well, virus. One manager told me today he thought the industry could bounce back well enough, and if this was to all finish tomorrow it might. But how long can it survive in its current guise? The State can't fund private operators ad infinitum so one of two things is going to happen. Firstly we see many independent operators fall leaving the big boys to pick up the choice cuts and abandon the rest, which is what they will do with their own routes anyhow. Buses will be for urban areas only, with rural services all but extinct. It is highly unlikely Councils will be adequately funded to subsidise any of the abandoned routes.

Or secondly the State will be forced to take the entire industry in house to guarantee services, which they won't as that would go against every Conservative sinew possible.

Add to that the current low public confidence in Public Transport and we have the perfect storm. If few people actually want to use buses why bother running them or indeed funding them? Key workers will suddenly seem less important - that process has already started - so we'll see a gradual yet definite and possibly terminal shedding of routes. I'm concerned to say the least. Any operator will tell you it's easy to lose passengers, but infinitely harder to win them back. If this new isolated way of life becomes the new normal, and let's face it, until the entire country has been vaccinated it will do, will anyone want to go back to the old ways? I really want to try out one of the new Caetano electric buses introduced in London this week, or find out just how loud the rattling on the new Excel Scania E400's is now, but genuinely can't see that happening this year. When transport has been your life for nearly half a century that's hard to take.

One other nail in the coffin of bus travel is the rural DRT and dial-a-ride services. Manned mainly by volunteers who can blame them for not wanting to put their lives on the line anymore, especially as their vehicles are the smallest and most enclosed of the lot. Getting those volunteers back in the same numbers won't be easy either.

There are lots of empty trains running we're all encouraged not to catch, and from tomorrow there will be even more of them. A slightly different situation financially from the buses as all rail services are run on behalf of the Government anyway, if not all by them. I don't think we'll ever see peak travel return to the old levels, as a lot of companies will realise having people work from home is mutually advantageous, and again social distancing means passenger capacity is greatly reduced. Except on the Underground, of course, which is where the Government's explicit and detailed advice of "following social distancing IF POSSIBLE" comes into play. In other words, "if you don't want to walk or cycle twenty miles then trust to luck". Again, outside London and the major cities it will be a confidence thing, and a conscience matter - after all when will it be morally acceptable to use public transport for leisure again? When will it be safe to travel in numbers again?

I can't see anything returning to its old self, be it the way we travel, the reasons we travel, or the way travel is operated and governed. Certainly my hobby has mirrored my dear old Mum - 3 months ago was in the peak of condition and is now a shell, staring blankly into space, not knowing or recognising anything, or aware of any future.

One last conundrum to ponder - when the schools go back presumably so will school transport. If school buses have the same social distancing rules as public buses that means 4 out of 5 kids won't be able to use them. If they don't have the same social distancing rules how will the Government justify it, or will that be the time they lift all social distancing measures on public buses and let everyone take their chances again? One to watch, I think.

Take care all, and stay safe, especially you wonderful folks keeping the wheels of the transport industry turning. I salute you all.




Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Ensign Family Values

Last night I received a message from Ross Newman, Director of just about everything at Ensignbus right now. He showed me a letter that had been sent to all the staff at Ensign. Regular readers will know the high esteem I hold Ensign in. If there's one thing I am proud this blog has achieved it's getting to know and be welcomed by these guys. The letter moved me to tears.

I asked Ross if I could publish the letter as with all the negative news about the way companies like Virgin, Wetherspoons and Sports Direct have treated their staff I thought it was important that as much of the world see how it should be done, and that there are companies who do treat their staff with compassion and huge respect.

I'm happy to say Ross has agreed to let me publish the letter. I urge all of you to publicise this post to as many as you can. This is how it's done. Thank you.


Today’s letter to everyone:

It’s fair to say the last few days have been like nothing we have ever known before. We understand the importance of sharing any updates we can but are mindful not to put out news that isn’t confirmed or is liable to change before being implemented so let me take this opportunity to bring you as up to date as we can.

Firstly, the all to obvious bad news. Being a fully commercial operation with no contracts that continue to pay even if we are not running our revenue has been decimated.

Private hires have dropped to zero with school trips, weddings and social gatherings all cancelled.

Service work saw revenue drop by around 60% before we went to an emergency timetable on Monday 23, with schools closed and businesses shuttered, clearly the service is now only for those that are key workers and need to travel and by operating it we are assisting them.

Bus sales are all on hold. Every operator in the U.K. has dozens of spare buses in their yards or have suspended their operations completely. Either way they don’t need replacement vehicles at this moment in time.

And now the good news, which I’m afraid is somewhat in short supply. The company was in a strong position before this chaos descended upon us. We have received positive soundings of support from the council towards the continued operation of the emergency timetable and Amazon have increased their requirements for both social distancing and extra staff needs.

Our priority, first and foremost is ensuring everyone’s safety and as such many workers have been sent home due to their own underlying medical conditions, their ability to be able to work from home, or simply as we want to reduce risk to you and others by having less people about.

Of course we know that the lack of work is of course a real concern to all of you and we want to do everything we can to ensure no employee at Ensign suffers undue financial hardship. As such everyone will be paid as normal this week and going forwards from then staff working as part of the skeleton team will be paid their wages as normal and in full for all hours worked.

Staff that we currently have no work for will be put on the ‘furloughed list’. This will allow us to claim back a proportion of your contractually based hours. However, we want to go further than that and have therefore provided more comfort as best as we can to try and further assist you and your families at this tough time. Therefore all furloughed staff will earn either 85% of their salary or 85% of their contracted hours. So, for example if you are on a 40 hour contract the government would assist us with paying 32 of those hours and we have added another two hours on top. Thus a 40 hour contracted worker on furlough will receive 34 hours pay. Obviously this pro-rata’s higher or lower based on your contracted minimum hours.

We believe that with the mortgage and tax holidays now available, no travelling or socialising costs etc. this level of income means you and your families can weather the storm with security.

Those of you that have been sent home without work will be added to the furlough list. Others of you will have been contacted by your line manager to explain the situation, others will remain working from home or indeed part of the team still ‘operating as normal’.

Years of operating a tight ship on costs and waste has put us in the position where it is possible for us to sustain this extra support for some time but should this shutdown last for an extended period we will of course have to review the situation again but we all hope dearly that does not become necessary.

It is often said that Ensign is a family and never have we felt that more keenly than in the last few days.  We have been overwhelmed and humbled by the offers of help and assistance from staff and can only thank you for the kind words which certainly helped stiffen our resolve to find a way through this. On a personal level Peter remains at home shielded due to being in a vulnerable age group, whilst Steve remains in isolation for a few more days after his youngest daughter showed symptoms.

It may well be the largest crisis we have ever had to deal with but Ensign has won many wars over the years and we have absolutely no intention of losing this one.

In these trying times the most critical thing is to keep family safe and for us that is a large family, the Ensign family. We remain committed to doing all we can to get through this and come out the other side stronger than ever before.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

This Way Of Life Terminates Here

Hi everyone, sorry for the long gap - life has got a bit hectic, the storm before the enforced calm if you will. And in a matter of days the way of life, as we knew it, has changed, maybe forever. We are, effectively, at war. War with an invisible enemy who, left unchecked, has the potential to wipe out a proportion of the human population. It is already doing so in Italy, Spain, and Iran. It will do here unless people start taking it seriously.

In the last month the rail line to Berney Arms was re-opened. I was on the first train to stop there and it was great occasion. They may as well close it again. We are being told not to use public transport unless the journey is essential. There can be no possible "essential" journey to Berney Arms and anyone who gets the train there is putting others at risk. You can see from the header pic that more Class 745's are entering service. 745005 was the latest to enter on Thursday, and I've been told the last Class 90 loco hauled service will be tomorrow. Think on that. It was only two weeks ago I was told by a driver they expected the 90's to hang around till June. Now it's tomorrow. I'll try and find a very remote spot to take a pic, but it won't be a station, I won't attempt to travel on it, and that hurts. But since I had to pass through London on Thursday it would be highly inconsiderate of me to get close to any rail workers doing their best to keep the system going for those who really DO need to travel. But the fact it's happening speaks volumes, and suggests the reduced services starting tomorrow are here for a long time.

My mother is currently in assessment care in Kent, having been in hospital for 10 days after falling seriously ill with everything apart from Covid-19. Her assessment centre is in lock down, and I managed to wave at her through a window. As she's very confused right now heaven only knows what she's thinking, but I travelled down mainly to mothball her house until such time she needs it again as neither I nor my brother will be staying there as we have been over the last few weeks. It was the journey down that brought everything home to me. The 0740 Norwich to Liverpool Street normally carries well over 500 passengers. On Thursday there were 17 of us who travelled to London. 17 passengers on a 12 coach morning peak train. It was surreal.

Not wanting to use the Underground I doubled back to Stratford - which was busier than Liverpool St - and caught DLR to Woolwich. The Train Captains were chaining off the most popular seats at the front of the train and operating the doors from there, isolating themselves from passengers.

In Kent buses were being well used, and although the High St was quiet most of the shops still seemed well patronised. Not a patch on the shopping centres at Stratford, though, which were positively heaving as I journeyed home. The 1700 out of Liverpool St was busier than the journey up, but I reckon still less than 25% of its usual demand. I watched the train I alighted from at Darsham pull out the station, and wondered when my next trip on public transport would be. It won't be anytime soon. I have no need now. Cars are actually safer if travelling alone and if I really do need to get essential supplies I'll do it by road.

Eventually everyone else will get the message and public transport use will all but die. Who knows if it will ever recover to its former state. I doubt it. I was reading a blog by my good friend Roger French earlier, who suggested the only way forward would be to nationalise the rail and bus industries again until they were back on their feet, thus preserving jobs and services. I think he's right. Although this is an invisible war it is still a war, and wartime measures and thinking need to happen. If they don't then there will be no transport system to recover when this is over as everyone will have gone bust. Paying 80% of wages is one thing, but if there is no revenue coming in how are things like maintenance, fuel costs and insurance kept going? The State needs to take over and run all public services until the country has recovered enough to stand on its own to feet again - a bit like my poor old mum.

My heart goes out to everyone in the transport industry. I read a letter posted by Ensign the other day, apologising for having to cut services, and it almost broke my heart. There are people who have devoted their lives to the transport industry who are watching everything they have worked for come crashing down. The State owes them not only to save their operations, but to use their experience and wisdom to rebuild the transport network as and when the health issues allow. If they don't then everything could disappear outside London and other areas authority run.

When it does recover I can see changes to travelling behaviour happening that until the last few days would have been unthinkable. I was chatting to a couple of BTP officers at Liverpool St on Thursday, and we agreed that businesses would suddenly realise the value of employees working from home, the reduction of cost maintaining company premises, being able to downsize, and from the employees point of view the joy of the lack of daily commute, not to mention the cost and more time with their loved ones. We could see a huge reduction in demand at peak hours as businesses take stock and alter working practices.

Only time will tell, but in the meantime I urge anyone who doesn't have to use public transport not to. The fewer people that go out the harder it will be for the virus to spread. It's that simple. I'm listening to the traffic go by my window on a Sunday afternoon and wonder where the hell everyone is going - they can't all be hospital or other key workers.

To all my friends in the transport industry I'll be praying for you, everyone from MD's to cleaners. Thank you for what you're doing, those who will genuinely need your services will owe you a debt of gratitude, and let's all hope you are all still very much still doing what you do best long into the future. However, I do not genuinely need your services, so for the time being I'm putting the blog on ice. I won't be going out doing what I love - riding buses and trains - for who knows how long, until Government advise changes I guess, although if the last cl90 services is tomorrow then Greater Anglia don't believe this will be on the way out in 12 weeks anymore than the rest of us do. I'll still be active on Twitter (@busandtrainpage) so give me a follow there for any updates and what will be rare pics or vids.

Stay safe, be sensible, and we'll wait to see what colour light is at the end of this tunnel.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Now I Know My ABC I Can Get To Peterborough!

Doesn't rhyme, I know, but I've been up a very long time. Since yesterday in fact, as today saw the launch of the much anticipated new fleet of 19 Scania ADL E400 Citi buses on the formerly X1, then XL, (which made the route sound like a burger) Norwich to Peterborough route, all 84 miles of it. Now re-branded Excel it has 4 lettered routes, all variations on a theme, but providing new and well imagined variety and options on the route. As I was one of the first to know about the unique Scania/E400C combination I thought it only right that I should be the first passenger on one. That meant leaving home at stupid o'clock to drive to Kings Lynn in order to get the first new bus operated service, the 0530 Kings Lynn to Peterborough.

36911 in a still gloomy Peterborough, making the destination screen not camera friendly
Make no mistake, these buses look magnificent inside and out. Best Impressions' Ray Stenning was let loose and he has truly excelled (sorry) himself. How long it will last after being assaulted by branches and bus washes I don't know, but the paint job on the exterior is arguably the best I've ever seen - I'm really struggling to think of anything better I've seen in recent times. Get inside and you are met with an interior East Anglia has never seen before. A superb colour scheme and contrast, really decent lighting that isn't in your face, information screens, mainly comfy seats - as usual with ADL and First the seats above wheels or electronics cupboards are far inferior to the majority. All seats have USB chargers, phone holders, coat hooks and a bell push. There are also two tables upstairs.The stairs are easy to negotiate and well lit one side with fancy lighting, and from the other by daylight as First went for the glazed stairwell option. However, since all windows are tinted, dignity is not in jeopardy.




So to the routes. There are four variations on the route. Route A is the old route - All Stops. The A's run mainly early and late journeys, plus Sundays. Route B is hourly all stops to Kings Lynn, then runs fast to Wisbech, before reverting back to all stops to Peterborough. Route C is the game changer, hourly again running fast from Easton for Norfolk Showground to Swaffham, bypassing Dereham. This cuts 25 mins off the journey time from Norwich to Swaffham and Kings Lynn. That's a lot. It then runs all stops Kings Lynn to Wisbech, before heading to Peterborough limited stop by omitting Thorney. If you're doing the whole route the B takes 3h17m, and the C 3hr7m, so not a huge difference, but if you are going between intermediate stops, as most will, then much faster journey times are available.

Which leaves the D. With the C missing out Dereham the gap had to be filled, and it's been filled twice over with the D running every 30 minutes fast between Dereham and Norwich, competing directly with Konect's Straight8. Add the B and there are now three buses an hour from Norwich to Dereham, the same number as Konect. The next few months will be interesting to see if there is a big enough demand to sustain 6 buses an hour, and if not who will buckle first. but clearly a lot of thought has gone into the new routes, and I hope they do well. I'll certainly be tempted to Kings Lynn more often with a 25 min shorter journey time.


36904 at Kings Lynn
So, the buses look great inside and out, the routes and timetable have been well thought out. All that's left is what happens when the wheels start moving. All I can say is if you have a table seat then don't, for the love of God, put a drink on the table that doesn't have a sturdy lid or you will end up drenched. The suspension is so hard it beggars belief. Every tiny imperfection in the road surface is noticed. My quote of the day was a passenger saying "if you put a jaffa cake in front of the bus the bump would be enough to spill your tea". That is not much of an exaggeration. Typing on the phone is hard going, sleeping I'd have thought will be damn nigh impossible as I was being thrown around like a plane suffering heavy turbulence. And there were rattles. First day out in service there were rattles. I knew there would be rattles. It's ADL so of course there will be rattles, and until an operator sends buses back refusing to accept them in that state there will always be rattles. They also seemed to catch the wind badly too, as my drivers were struggling at times to keep in a straight line. But the Scania engine is powerful and has a nice deep rumble to it, the top speed is impressive, and ironically the ride seems better at 60mph than it is at 30. Whether that's a down force thing or not I'm not sure, but I certainly noticed a difference. Oh, and one more thing - tables are great, but please, someone, remind the designers that buses move and go round corners, hopefully, so having a table surface as smooth as an ice rink is only going to result in one thing, especially in emergency braking scenarios. Get non slip surfaces on them asap or that lovely floor is going to be plagued with coffee stains, and lawyers fielding burned legs claims!

The not so luxurious front offside seats
I spent part of my day with Roger French, ex Brighton & Hove supremo, who took far more and better pictures than I did, and he has also written a review on his blog, which I'd recommend reading, especially as he found the buses faultless! You can read it here. I love picking Roger's brains and hearing him talk about his travels. Weather and man flu permitting I could be seeing him again very soon.

So conclusions. A lot of people have worked very hard to make this new Excel happen. The branding is good, timetable information good, the timetable itself is imaginative and deserves to succeed. The exterior and interior are the best this region this ever seen and it was worth the unsocial hours to be the first one on board. I just have this nagging feeling that in 6 months the body noise will have become unbearable and the ride even worse. I hope I'm wrong. When I set out this morning I was going to compare the Scania with the best bus that was trialled on the route - the BCI Enterprise, which is peerless in my opinion for comfort and ride quality. But I didn't. I didn't compare them to their predecessors either, those God awful E400's now to be found on the X1/2/11 between Lowestoft/Belton and Norwich. Instead I compared them to the Volvo B9 Geminis, who operated the route from 2008 - 2013, and are going to see their days out on local Norwich routes. 12 years on have we advanced. I'm not interested in fuel economy or technical details - I'm a passenger, and want my journey to be an experience I want to repeat again and again. If I want to then hopefully others will too. This should be the overriding ambition of any business, including bus operators, to have customers return time and time again. Despite the magnificent interior and exterior looks of the E400C's too many times I felt myself pining for a Gemini. I suspect the many senior citizens using the route who find their dentures loosened by the ride will do too. That is a shame when so many people have put so much into this project. However, that was the bit I knew well in advance of my 3am departure this morning. Everything else was a very pleasing and encouraging experience. It will be fascinating to see how the route evolves now.

36907 on the B
One final footnote - the Norwich Peterbrough route is used extensively by tourists in the warmer months, many of them transferring onto the X1 at Norwich to continue to Great Yarmouth, yet unlike the old E400 and Geminis there are no luggage racks. I do hope we won't see any suitcase v buggy v wheelchair scenarios. Might be worth thinking about before we do.

Currently the only luggage space shared with buggy and wheelchair bay.

Monday, 3 February 2020

All Change Please!

All good things come to an end, and over the course of this weekend a lot of good things came to an end. Signals, signal boxes and manual crossing gates that have served the Wherry Lines between Norwich and Lowestoft/Great Yarmouth since the 1880's are being decommissioned and replaced by aspect signals and automatic barriers controlled from Colchester. I was out on the last day of service for the boxes and signals on the Great Yarmouth Branch, and 2 days before the end of the Lowestoft branch.

I started in Great Yarmouth, where there are many photos of glory days there, with numerous excursions and charter trains bringing thousands to the Norfolk coast. Friday, a mere shadow of its former self, the last day for the Semaphores and signal box had arrived. 


The Semaphores and Signal Box at Great Yarmouth 
755328 passes the signals and box

Next it was onto Acle, where I discovered the signal box is being taken over by the team who care for the station, so it is staying put and will hopefully become a visitor attraction on the line. The staff had made their own simple, but poignant tribute.

Acle signal box
Thank you and Goodbye 

Looking East at Acle

755333 heading to Great Yarmouth
Unfortunately the old crossing gates at Lingwood had already been removed, so I continued to Brundall, where the Yarmouth and Lowestoft lines converge, or split depending which way you're travelling! Of all the intermediate stations, Brundall has the lot - double track, split platforms, nice footbridge, Semaphores and old manual crossing gates. This would be the last day for Yarmouth services, with Lowestoft services finishing two days later. I took my time at Brundall, enjoying sights I'll never see again.



755333 heading for Yarmouth 
In 3 weeks all the new signals, barriers and new track will be operational, and the Berney Arms branch is due to be reopened - Berney Arms being the only GA station on the diesel network yet to be served by a Stadler. The stations will retain their charm, but it won't be the same.

Today, Monday, saw the final Class 156 Sprinter to leave GA and head for pastures new at East Midlands Railway. I was at Thetford to see 156417 pass through, handily hampered by one of its new classmates!

156417 passes through Thetford 
With the notable exception of 745010, who really disgraced itself last week by failing at Forest Gate and stubbornly refusing to move, the Stadlers finally appear to be settling down, indeed I'm writing this post on 010 and all is well so far. The 3 week closure of the Wherry Lines gives a welcome restbite to sort out the remaining niggles, and today I have noticed no cancellations or delays caused by Stadler faults.

If this happy state of affairs continues for the rest of the week I'll finally be able to post my reports of the debuts of the bi-modes on the routes I haven't covered yet, not to mention the last 156 journeys on the East Suffolk Line and Marks Tey - Sudbury branch.

Make no mistake, these are gloriously good trains to travel on, and I remain convinced once bedded in will be the envy of the country, and despite the unfortunate issues GA should be proud of themselves for going against the DfT grain, and investing in trains that have passengers smiling as they board them. I can't please everyone with this blog, so GA were never going to please absolutely everyone with the Stadlers. But they've won over the huge majority I've witnessed. Hopefully much more to come on them.

To finish with here's the video a lot of the above pics were taken from, showing the Semaphores at Great Yarmouth, Acle and Brundall, plus 156417 passing rather shakily through Thetford.