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Wednesday, 11 September 2019

When Is Naming Not Blaming?

If you follow me on Twitter you will have seen that recently I have had some lively discussions with a well respected member of the railway media regarding information given to the travelling public by train operating companies. I believe the public should be well aware of who is responsible for what on the railway, whereas my combateur believes the railway is one unit, and no one should be blamed for anything - the operating company dealing with all issues as though they are responsible, because they are the ones taking our money.

Except they're not are they. Let's look a little more closely at who pays for what. When I go to the station and buy a ticket who exactly am I paying? Well yes, I'm paying the operating company, who then pay the Government for the privilege of running trains. The operating company also pays Network Rail line rental - literally in this case. If a train is delayed due to the fault of the operating company they get fined by Network Rail. If the delay is the fault of infrastructure then they claim back compensation from Network Rail. There are armies of people whose sole job is to extract as many minutes delay as they can from an incident, and then make claims to the opposite party. I have seen a 3 minute delay to one train at Lewisham in Southeast London develop into over 5,000 minutes claimed due to snowball effects on other services.

So, if a train is delayed due to a signal failure it is the responsibility of Network Rail. If it's because of disruptive passengers, a train fault, or staff problems then it's down to the operating company. Seems all clear and crystal like. Except it's not. I've had passengers have a right go at me because they've been delayed by issues neither I, nor my employer had any control over, and that is simply not fair. It has always been something I've wondered - why there is not more education of the travelling public of exactly who is responsible for what on the railway, and I've reached the conclusion that the people who run the railway, and indeed some who make a living out of reporting on the railway, just don't want the people who pay to travel knowing.

I have been badgering the Association of British Commuters for well over a year now to produce a publication to lay to rest some of the myths about the railway. To educate the public so when things go wrong they know who is responsible, and don't take it out on the wrong people such as barrier staff, Conductors or Twitter teams. Despite several hints at "an announcement I'd like" there has been nothing, which surprises me as you'd think a passenger lead pressure group would want the truth out there. But it's all gone very quiet.

And then of course there is Network Rail. Owned by the State - us to be precise. So when you buy your ticket not only is some of your money going to Network Rail in line rental, it's also going to Network Rail through the taxation system, because it's your taxes that fund Network Rail! So in effect we are paying for all parts of the railway - the operator and the infrastructure maintainer. So you'd have thought that letting the public realise that if a signal continuously fails outside Norwich it has nothing to do with Greater Anglia but is down to Network Rail would be natural. It makes the railway transparent, and informs the public, which as fare AND taxpayers they surely have a right to know. In any other industry, if Government money is concerned, when something goes belly up there are inquiries galore. But not the railway, and I think I know why.

The operators run trains on behalf of the Government. Sub contracted. The Department of Transport dictate timetables, train length, most fares, specification of new rolling stock (mostly), how many staff on the train and more. Not many people know that, so if a train is frequently rammed they take it out on the operating company, who have to clear it with the D of T before they can lengthen it. So the it's the name on the train who gets the blame.

Yet think on this. Network Rail is owned and run by the Department of Transport. Of course they don't want the public knowing what it is responsible for because so much of the time it is infrastructure that goes wrong. Much better for the name on the train to get blamed - after all if a Government Department was seen to be badly running things that could cost votes. The operating companies are scapegoats so the public, who fund Network Rail are kept ignorant and so don't blame the Government! Sir Humphrey would be proud - "if you tell the public what they want to know - then they'll know and that could be disastrous". This must be why whenever Network Rail are mentioned by an operating company as being responsible for a delayed train there are shrieks of horror from parts of the industry, and the operating company instantly slapped down. Never let it be said customers got told the truth.

But it gets worse. The other day The Norwich - London mainline was disrupted because a freight train broke down. It happens. Trains/locos break down - just surprising some pedant didn't point out the train didn't break down but the locomotive did! Now if I'm in a traffic jam on the motorway and it comes over the radio "tailbacks on the A12 due to a broken down lorry" I don't immediately want all trucks banned from the roads, or the truck owner put in stocks on a roundabout. It is just letting me know why I am sitting there twiddling my thumbs. If I'm on a train and hear of a delay due to a broken down freight train I'm not going to want the driver sacked, or the freight operating company dissolved! It's just one of those things, and the more the public know the easier they will take things. I DO know that from experience. The public get far more agitated when information is withheld, than they do when they're given the facts. If it's a shared line with other operators, and one of their trains is causing the delay then the public have a right to know, as their money pays for the railway. Fact isn't slander. Fact isn't libellous. Information is vital in this day and age. And believe me - if I'm on a train stuck in the middle of nowhere, as I was a couple of years ago, and by looking at the live diagrams I see a freight train has broken down in front I'm going to let those round me know, to protect the poor sods on board from getting extra grief. Of course there are some who'll have a go at the person in uniform anyway, but even if one person doesn't as a result of the information it's worth it.

So, as we, the travelling public pay for all aspects of the railway either through fares or taxes don't we have a right to transparency, information and fact, or are the railways so badly managed that everything has to be hushed up so the truth doesn't out? Makes you wonder, but my opinion, or stance is not going to change. The ONLY way our railway is one railway, as I'm frequently told it is, is that the public pay for it, in many, many ways. They have a right to be told, regardless of which sensitive soul in an office miles from the front line it upsets.

It used to be let the train take the strain. Now it's let the train take the blame.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Greater Anglia Officially Launch The Flirts

Yesterday (4th September) saw the official launch of Greater Anglia's fleet of Stadler Flirt trains. There were events at Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, where the great and the good celebrated the new trains. At Norwich and Yarmouth there was a giant hare present, the symbol on the Swiss built trains, and a steel band. No, I don't know either!

Anyway, while the rest of the media concentrated on Norwich and Great Yarmouth, I went to Lowestoft as I had noticed the enormous effort made by Martin, Tim and Jackie, the Station Adopter Team, to deck the station out in bunting and other decorations, even sweeping puddles away, and guessed correctly it would be ignored by other media. Even the giant hare ignored Lowestoft, but the steel band were there, and I have to say livened up the place, even though I was disappointed not to see Greater Anglia management have an impromptu limbo dancing contest! A Stadler was used to ferry them around, which was open for public viewing.

755413 arrives at Lowestoft for the launch
The Steel Band do their stuff
There were speeches which unfortunately I missed as I was giving someone a tour of the Stadler, and happy to say very proud to do so as they really are remarkable trains on so many levels. Yet again I sat in one of the seats and my back purred with pleasure. First impressions count but so do third, fourth and fifth, and my enthusiasm hasn't waned one little bit.

At one point all three ;platforms at Lowestoft were in use with the 755, a 156 and a 153 all present.

Not a sight to be seen for much longer
Then things went a bit pear shaped, and the various men and women in suits were scurrying around, fearing a PR disaster. The 1457 to Norwich was cancelled, which you don't want when you have a brand new train on display, and a plethora of management proclaiming how good the future is. However, it pleases me to say the day was saved extremely efficiently. Free coffee and cake was handed round to all Norwich bound customers, and a place on the management special to Norwich awarded, which became an "extra service".  Well done to all concerned.

Now, you can have all the testing you like, but you really don't know how something is going to work until it's out there in the big wide world, and then there will be teething troubles. We had them on Southeastern with the Electrostars, and every new fleet of trains, and indeed buses take time for everything to be smoothed out. The Stadlers are proving no different, and various little niggles are cropping up. I urge everyone to be patient as these trains are going to be worth a bit of inconvenience. If they were the standard of the 700's or Great Northern's 387's I'd be a lot more critical, but these are trains not used in the UK before, and when the niggles are sorted will be the envy of the country.

There will be more launches around the network as the new trains, pluss the Intercity 745's and Commuter 720's are introduced in the next few months. I hope to catch as many of these as possible as an entire fleet of trains being replaced doesn't happen very often!

I did video the Stadler leaving, but it crawled away so, in the best of traditions, here is one I prepared 5 days earlier, at Oulton Broad North. The acceleration and lack of noise from the engines are both highly impressive. Have I mentioned I quite like them......



Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Electric Deckers Spark Into Life

Of course, fully electric double decker buses are nothing new in this country, except all previous versions have required a pantograph and overhead wires. Now, in London they have gone wireless and pantless with their electric deckers, and they are out in service doing their bit to reduce emissions in the Capital. Yesterday I went to sample them, with a great degree of naivety in places too!

The first fully electric double deckers to enter service are on the 43, which runs from London Bridge Station to Friern Barnet in North London. After the total embarrassment of getting lost in the underground labyrinth that is now London Bridge trying to find the bus station (I blame misleading signage and I'm sticking to it) I found what I was looking for gleaming in the London sunshine.

BDE2628 pn the stand at London Bridge
This is the electric bus built by BYD in partnership with ADL, and using the E400 Citi body. Very nice they look too, I think I prefer them without the glass staircase. Inside they are light and airy, and the airchill works well. Seats are comfortable, and I boarded with an open mind and high hopes. I wasn't disappointed.

Upstairs in the BYD
We pulled away in silence. Well almost silence. The lack of engine noise makes the airchill seem even louder but that was a minor detail. I sat back and enjoyed the ride, and I mean really enjoyed the ride through Islington, Archway and Muswell Hill - first time for me there and it really is quite a hill! The BYD took everything in its stride, with startlingly rapid acceleration. They are seriously nice places to be. However, one thing niggled me. All seats have USB chargers except the most popular seats right at the front upstairs, and the seats immediately behind the stairs, and I admit I got a bit grumpy about that. However, thanks to the most chatty London bus driver I've met in decades all was revealed. As usual I wanted to get the driver's view, and at Friern Barnet terminus a rather decent Kosovan driver named Tim was more than happy to wax lyrical about the bus, how quiet and smooth it was, and such a pleasure to drive. He showed me that despite being out on the road since 5am - it was 1230 by this time - the bus had only used 27% of it's battery life. Mind you there are 3 tonnes of them, of which more later.

Friern Barnet terminus
Then I asked Tim about the lack of charging points in the most popular seats. I hope Roger French knows someone in TfL who can confirm this highly believable reason Tim gave me, that it's a decision made by TfL deliberately not to have charging points at those seats so they aren't hogged by passengers for hours taking videos while charging instead of getting the tourist buses. Not sure that applies to the 43, but as they are rolled out across London you can see the reasoning. If that is the true reason then it's well thought through. If not and they just couldn't be bothered then not so good. Anyway thank you, Tim, for the chat. I hope I have the pleasure of seeing you again when I return to see how the BYD's are faring. Tim told me they are the best bus they've ever had at Potters Bar depot. Praise indeed,

Sorry, Tim, you are wrong as they have already been beaten! This is where my naivety and lack of research comes to the fore.

I knew another route was getting electric deckers, the 134 between Warren St and North Finchley, a route that much of it shares with the 43. However all I had seen on the route were MCV Volvo Evosetis. Tim confirmed there were some electrics on the 134, and I assumed they were electric versions of the Evoseti. Even when I finally, after they had done their best in evading me for a couple of hours, boarded one I still had it in my head they were Evosetis, until I looked at the picture I had taken before boarding and realised what a prize chump I was. I should mention at this point I was already blown away by the ride and lack of body noise, believing it to be an Evoseti. But it isn't. Oh no!

Not an Evoseti!

Now, in my defence I have had an exhausting couple of weeks, had spent the previous day taking my 80yo mother shopping (90 mins in Aldi alone) and had had little sleep, so my brain wasn't at its most alert. However I really should have worked out what OME stood for! So I hang my head in shame for not realising it was an Optare Metrodecker Electric. But actually, thinking about it, the fact I thought it was an Evoseti meant I got on it with no preconceptions. Everyone knows I adore the Metrodecker diesel version, and I'm pretty sure I'd have got on expecting to be blown away. As it was I was blown away before I realised what it was. What it is, is truly phenomenal.

There is no body noise. None. The suspension gives a ride superior to that of the BYD/ADL. The airchill isn't as noisy, the acceleration could launch it into space. Windows that don't have to be unlocked to aid ventilation. True, it's not quite as light as the E400Citi, but the interior uplighting is far better, I imagine especially after nightfall. I shall return to check that one out.

Upstairs interior complete with LED up lighting
Is it as good as the BCI Enterprise? No, but they are for entirely different markets. The Enterprise is for interurban routes that require a heavyweight big powerful vehicle. They would be wasted on the likes of the 134. But the Metrodecker Electric, in my opinion, is the best local bus I've ever been on. Certainly my driver thought so. Didn't get as long with him as I did Tim, but he was just as gushing in his praise, apart from slightly heavy steering. What really spoke volumes though, and remember this is London where you're lucky to get a grunt out of a driver, when I was lining up the photo below, another driver came up to me, grinned, and said "they're bloody brilliant, mate". A driver approaching an enthusiast to praise the bus, in London? That's how good they are.

The Metrodecker at North Finchley terminus
Oh - notice anything about the destination display? London is famous for still insisting on roller blinds. However OME2654 has an LED display that is being trialled. Looks convincing enough to me - here is normally blinded OME2655 to compare.

Normal blinds
So, what are the conclusions. Well. the BYD/ADL is very impressive, and nice to travel on, at the moment. What does worry me with them, though, is body noise. The lack of engine noise means any rattle or creak is augmented, and there were plenty of them now, so it will be interesting to go back in 6 months to see, or rather hear what deterioration there has been, if any. I do not predict any such issues with the Optare, but they will get the same review in 6 months to check.

I mentioned the BYD has 3 tonnes of batteries. I don't know how much weight the Optare carries in batteries, but overall the Optare is over 2 tonnes lighter than the BYD. I assume that makes a big difference in power consumption, perhaps someone more technically minded than I can confirm that.

The weight of the Optare

And the heavier BYD/ADL

I'm in no doubt that electric buses are the future, and before long London will be flooded with them. Not East Anglia, obviously. If there are any buses still running in 50 years we might get some second hand electric ones if we're lucky, but in the real world where buses still have some importance we could be on the brink of a revolution, and the wireless, pantless trolleybuses will become standard in towns and cities across the land.

Rear view of the Optare





Thursday, 8 August 2019

The Ticket Machine Says No

I was light heartedly accused in my last post of going soft! Andrew, I think you'll see I'm well and truly back to type.

First Eastern Counties have announced a ream of changes to their Ipswich network. It's not good news for anyone I can see, but good news for FEC who have been able to reduce their PVR.

So how have First reached the decisions to further streamline services and abandon more people to next to no service. Well, they claim on their website:

"These changes are based on feedback from passengers, local stakeholders and our local driving team as well as extensive analysis of passenger journeys and punctuality of our services." 

Ok, that's as you'd expect, basic jargon for "we say we've listened but everyone knows the truth" But it's the next paragraph that caught my eye, sent blood pressure stratospheric, and confirmed what I already knew.

"Our new ticket machines, introduced in May 2018, allow us to collect more detailed data on where and when people travel than has ever been possible in the past and we have carried out a detailed analysis of all of this information when designing these changes; many of which are intended to bring simpler, quicker and more direct journeys for the majority of passengers as well as ensuring the long-term sustainability of our network that is operated almost entirely without any sort of local authority subsidy."

I'm sorry? Name any other business that operates dependent on local authority subsidy! Are you after medals or something? Plus any subsidy that is given isn't to prop up your business but to give those poor sods who don't live on housing estates some sort of bus service. Except you're now going to abandon some housing estates too. But it's not just that. 

This is proof beyond all reasonable doubt that First are not interested in gaining new customers, in looking for new ground to break, to be innovative, enterprising, ambitious. No, this is proof that First are settling for what they've got, that they want to keep "the majority of passengers" happy, hoping they don't desert them too.

So let's go through these changes. 



Shuttle 60|60A

Gainsborough (60A) & Greenwich (60) - Nacton Road - Ipswich Town Centre

We’re making some minor changes to times of buses on both 60 and 60A services in the mid afternoon to better meet demand at this time of day.


Not too much here, except now the frequency reduces from every 10 mins to every 15 mins at 1500 instead of 1600. So "better meet demand" means 2 buses being cut.



Service 63|64|65 & Service 800 to Rendlesham

Aldeburgh - Leiston - Saxmundham - Wickham Market - Melton & Woodbridge - Ipswich Hospital - Ipswich Town Centre

We’ll be introducing a new timetable across all of these services, to better match them to the journeys that people are making.

Service 64 will continue to operate between Ipswich, Leiston and Aldeburgh up to every hour throughout the day from Monday to Saturday calling at Woodbridge, Melton, Wickham Market and Saxmundham. However, buses will take a new, faster route through Woodbridge using Warren Hill Road and Old Barrack Road and will no longer travel along Newnham Road, Peterhouse Crescent and Bullard’s Lane from where only very small numbers of passengers use the bus each day.

Service 64 buses will also no longer serve Martlesham Black Tiles, and will travel between Woodbridge and the Martlesham Heath roundabout via the A12. Service 65 will operate a limited number of journeys each day that provide a link to Martlesham Tesco.

Service 800 (Ipswich Park & Ride) will no longer be extended beyond the park and ride site to Woodbridge, Melton and Rendlesham. Rendlesham will be served by buses on Service 65 which will operate a number of journeys throughout the day at the times when the majority of people are travelling, and will call at all stops to Ipswich town centre.

We will be operating a revised service 63 beyond Wickham Market to Framlingham with a return ‘shoppers’ journey on weekdays, arriving in Ipswich at around 1100 and leaving at 1405.

This is the biggie, so let's go through this one carefully. Starting with the 64, my home route, if you can call 6 miles away home!

When I moved to Wickham Market, some 11 years ago now, there were 3 buses an hour between Ipswich and Melton. The majority of passengers boarded or alighted around the Peterhouse Crescent area. You never missed a stop on that section of route, and remember at that time the 165 was still operating fast services between Woodbridge and Ipswich. Gradually services have been eradicated, changed then changed again. From September the Peterhouse estate will have none. Nothing. Zilch. Cut off. How on Earth has it been allowed to come to this!

The link from Wickham Market to Martlesham Tesco has also finally vanished, and the result of this is the 64 has been sped up between Woodbridge and Ipswich via the A12. Or has it. Let's go compare! Currently the journey from Ipswich to Wickham Market takes 67 minutes, which is a lot for a journey that can take as little as 25 in the car. After September it will take 56, which I'm sure is roughly what it took 10 years ago! There is still a 2 hour pm gap on schooldays in the Aldeburgh services, just at the time people want to be returning, which when joint promotions with the trains are happening isn't great. Speaking of the trains, connections between bus and train at Saxmundham have declined again, and with the last bus leaving Ipswich at 1750 the Ipswich bound pm journeys are going to be woefully empty. If you can't get back by bus you aren't going to go there by bus. If I was a mum anywhere on the route wanting to take the kids to a matinee at the cinema followed by a McDonalds going both ways by bus I couldn't. If I was a student at college who had a lecture finishing at 6pm (it happens) I couldn't use the bus. If I was a worker not doing 9 - 5 I couldn't use the bus. Who are the buses aimed at? Pass holders? The same pass holders operators whinge about because they don't get enough back for them!

Rendlesham is suffering again too, and this is a place I truly can't understand. It should be heaving with bus passengers, it's prime bus territory - miles from anywhere. At the moment it's part of the extended Ipswich Park & Ride, but not from September. From what I can make out from the complicated timetable they are down to 3 buses a day into Ipswich, and just 2 from Ipswich. Roger French, Bus and Train User recently caught the 800 hoping to get to Rendlesham at 0930 to connect with Buckland's vintage 250 service to Aldeburgh. Delays forced him to bail at Melton and get the train to Saxmundham, but according to the timetable, which I hope is misprinted, the first bus to Rendlesham now arrives at 1440. 

But the crowning glory, the one that proves how spectacularly out of touch FEC are, is the 63, and the proud announcement of the shoppers return to Ipswich, giving customers 3 hours in the County Town. Firstly no one ever used the 63 to get from Framlingham to Ipswich. They used it to get to Woodbridge or Wickham Market, or occasionally Martlesham, which is why the soon to be scrapped 62 doesn't go further than Woodbridge. And why is that? Because the 63 takes 87 minutes to get from Framlingham to Tower Ramparts in Ipswich. Galloway's 118/119 which operates from Framlingham to Ipswich 10 times a day takes 43 minutes. But First assume everyone will be galloping onto the 63. Incredible. Framlingham doesn't need another bus to Ipswich. I know what it does need, but I doubt it will ever happen. 


Service 66 (including X66|H66|67)

Service 66 buses will operate a simplified route around Martlesham Heath, starting at Tesco and travelling via Gloster Road to serve Adastral Park and then returning to Martlesham Heath roundabout via the A12. Unfortunately, due to the extremely low numbers of people travelling, buses will no longer serve Eagle Way. Passengers from this area should use service 173, operated by Ipswich Buses on behalf of Suffolk County Council.

In Ipswich town centre, buses travelling between Tower Ramparts and Ipswich Rail Station will now travel via Civic Drive not Museum Street. Buses travelling towards Martlesham will no longer go into Old Cattle Market Bus Station, and will instead use the stop at Dogs Head Street/Revolution.

Service X66, fast between Ipswich and BT/Adastral Park will no longer operate although there will be four journeys on service 66 in the morning on weekdays that will operate direct to BT/Adastral Park (Gloster Road) before serving Martlesham Tesco. In addition, four service 800 journeys will operate between Ipswich town centre and BT/Adastral Park in the weekday mornings, following the normal direct route along Woodbridge Road and Kesgrave Main Road.

There will be a revised timetable on services 67 and H66.

This is another route so badly mismanaged over the years it beggars belief. Remember the Superoute66 buses? Nothing super about it now. It used to be a 24 hour service. Now the evening service isn't worth bothering with. Instead of wondering why patronage in the Eagle Way area is poor (blindingly obvious btw as served on a circular route so can get back from Tesco but can't get there and if coming back from Ipswich have to sit for an age at Tesco before getting home) and doing something about it the service is just being withdrawn. Alternating the circular route obviously never entered anyone's head because the ticket machines won't have come up with that.

Losing the X66 makes sense, as the 800's out of town in the mornings are always empty. However there are no return 800 journeys from Adastral park in the afternoons. "Catch the 800 to work but make your own way home" seems to be the message,

There is, however, one mitigating factor in the demise of the 66. Ipswich depot. The roof STILL hasn't been dealt with so STILL can accommodate nothing except low height deckers, meaning 16yo B7tl's are operating the route. By now it should be modern deckers with all mod cons like chargers, tables, aircon, posh seats etc. That roof is a Head Office issue, not local, but even so I don't think much effort has gone into promoting or growing the route in recent times.



Service 68

Grange Farm - Kesgrave - Ipswich Hospital - Ipswich Town Centre

Due to the extremely small numbers of people travelling since its’ introduction in July 2017, unfortunately this service will be withdrawn.

Not surprising, was poorly used even in the days of the 165. 


Service 88|89

Stowmarket Town Centre & Estates - Combs Ford - Needham Market - Claydon - Ipswich Town Centre

As a result of an extremely detailed analysis of the use of our buses between Ipswich and Stowmarket, we will be introducing a completely revised service and timetable to allow faster journeys between the main points on the route, better meeting the needs of the majority of passengers.

All buses will operate as service 88, following a standard route travelling from Ipswich along Norwich Road, Old Norwich Road and then calling at Claydon (The Greyhound) and travelling through Needham Market along Lower Street, Ipswich Road, High Street and Stowmarket Road. From there buses will call at Combs Ford, Cracknells Shop, then following Ipswich Road into Stowmarket.

This faster, more direct route will reduce journey times between Ipswich and Needham Market to just 31 minutes and Ipswich and Stowmarket to just 45 minutes.

Within Stowmarket buses will operate a simplified loop via Finborough Road, Onehouse Road and Chilton Way. Buses will then serve the new Northfield View development at the bottom of Chilton Way, via Bury Road, Brooke Road and Sorley Way, returning to Stowmarket town centre via Bury Road.

As a result of these changes, our buses will no longer serve Bramford Road, Bramford village, Claydon Estate, either estate in Needham Market, Melford Road/Lavenham Way in Combs Ford and St Edmunds Road/Mead Road/St Peters Road/Gainsborough Road/Thirlmere Drive in Stowmarket.

In all cases this is because of the extremely small numbers of people using our buses to and from these areas, the majority of which are within walking distance of an alternative bus stop, sometimes only reaching low single figures each week. Bramford village will be served by service 111 operated by Ipswich Buses on behalf of Suffolk County Council.

Stowmarket has really suffered in the latest round of cuts, and rather than see where they can pick up new custom, First have decided to join in and abandon several estates to reduce journey times and the number of buses required. Proudly proclaiming Ipswich to Stowmarket only taking 45 minutes now, achieved by missing out many of the customer bases, and conveniently forgetting the train does it in 11 minutes starting earlier and finishing far later. Last bus from Ipswich to Stowmarket is 1745, so same issues as the 64. Oh - and Ipswich Buses 111 serving Bramford? 3 return journeys a day!

So there we have it. On top of that Ipswich Reds are now a thing, the colour red being so synonymous with the town....oh hang on that's not right is it....anyway the new design is red and looks very Go Aheadish. That will get 'em flocking on, don't know why you didn't rry green and yellow! 

It is well known that First Group want to sell off their bus operations. It can't happen soon enough. Having seen FEC improve no end under David Squire and the jointly under Chris Speed and Hugo Forster it seems over the last couple of years that hard work has been undone. Services are deteriorating, buses looking tattier - whatever happened to that brilliant cleaning regime developed by Paulo Mota - complaints about poor driver attitude going up. I am convinced it has more to do with the blinkered regime in Aberdeen than decisions taken locally, not that anyone would admit it out of loyalty, understandably so, but until the bus operations are in the hands of people who actually give a stuff as usual the passenger will suffer more than most. And when estates start being axed you know there's real trouble, as well as when ticket machine data replaces proper research and development.

So my message to First Group is, in the words of The Moody Blues, if you're gonna go you'd better go now - go now, before you see me cry.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

A Flirt That Doesn't Tease

Now it has been known, from time to time, for your blogger to be a little on the cynical side. Just a tad, of course, but nonetheless it's there. At least I thought it was. Now I'm not so sure, because on the 29th July 2019 all my moans and groans about new trains not being a patch on those they have replaced have been proved right. The 375/9's and most of the 377's are not a patch on the VEPS they replaced.  The 700's, although fantastic trains, are as comfortable as a bed of nails, and in that respect worse than the 319's they replaced. The same goes for the 717's that are replacing the 313's, the GWR 800's replacing the HST125's, and of course the much heralded Azumas replacing the Class 91 + MkIV's. Despite improvements in train performance, they are all undoubtedly, from a passenger's point of view, not an example of 30 or 40 years progress, and I haven't been slow in saying so.

Today saw the maiden passenger journeys of Greater Anglia's new Class 755 bi-mode Stadler Flirts. They have been floating around on test for a few months now, their debut into service keenly awaited. Despite Greater Anglia's assurances that they were going to be better than any other new train around, that the seats were ergonomically designed to give greater comfort, and we'd all love them, I was on the sceptical side. I mean. no one has ever said "hey, we're getting new trains but you'll hate them"! I have had so many disappointments with new trains in recent times I wasn't going to get excited.

So at 1715, platform 6 at Norwich station 755410 pulled in to form the 1736 to Great Yarmouth. I had read many glowing reports from the morning journeys, had spoken to Martin at Lowestoft Station who assured me I'd like them and was chuffed to bits the very first passenger journey for the 755 had started at his station, yet I still wasn't convinced. To make the challenge even harder the Flirt was replacing my beloved Class 37 thrash monsters, who were ticking over in the sidings just to remind me of their presence. The odds were stacked against the Flirt.

755410 pulls into NOrwich Station
The 37's reminding me what the Flirt was up against
So I walked up to the second coach, boarded, chose one of the raised table seats above the bogie, and took my seat. It was love at first sit. The seats are comfortable. I'll say that again just in case you thought you may have misread. The seats are comfortable. Regardless of what else is on a train if the seats aren't any good the journey is ruined before it's begun. No such problems with the Flirt, so having had my main concern alleviated I looked around, and I was actually awestruck. Quite simply the Flirt is a wonderful place to be. It manages to be open yet intimate at the same time, which is one heck of an achievement. The air conditioning is highly efficient yet they still feel warm, not cold and clinical like the 700's. The amount of thought that has gone into these trains is astonishing.

The raised table above the bogie

View from the raised seat
It's little touches that count - every seat has a plug socket and usb charging point, but the plug socket is upside down, meaning you get the extra inch of cable which isn't double backed round itself. The arm between the seats is padded, and even Julie Berry on the auto announcements has different inflections for the different uses of terminus stations. Not that the auto announcements were behaving themselves today, but I know from when the Electrostars were introduced on Southeastern that there will be constant software upgrades over the next few months until everything is sorted out.

Every door has a "step" negating the gap between train and platform, except where there's a curve in the platform. I use inverted commas as the train is level with the platform in height, so there is no step as such. The wheelchair bays are nice places, both with a table and charging points, and just too small to get a bike in, as bikes have their own designated space.

The gap covering step

Wheelchair bay 1

Wheelchair bay 2

The call point and charging points in the wheelchair bay
I haven't mentioned the ride yet. Well, if I'm honest, the ride isn't perfect, and you know what? That's perfect for me as it still feels like a train. You can clearly hear the wheels go over points and track joints. You will still get rocked to sleep by the motion yet I found typing on my laptop very easy. The WiFi was ok, although my laptop kept dropping out. The engine pod is quiet, and feels like walking through a ship, the sound of the four V8 engines well muffled. And boy do those engines have some power. The acceleration for a diesel train is phenomenal, and the mind boggles just what it will be like under electric power.

The engine pod section
I was on the Flirt for well over 3 hours. It didn't feel like it. No aches, pains or numb buttocks, and when I boarded a 156 to return to Lowestoft the seats didn't feel as good, and that made my day.

In conclusion the 755 is what a new train should be - that is a vast improvement on what it is replacing, in ALL aspects. Abellio should be applauded for not just consulting with many people from numerous walks of life about these trains, but listening to them as well, then acting on feedback. They have proved it CAN be done, and done well. I didn't hear a single negative word about the trains, and the staff clearly love them, which is another good indicator. Quite simply these Flirts put all other new trains I have been on to shame. Absolute shame. I'll finish by saying this - anyone, ANYONE who claims to be impartial, and not have a secret agenda who continues to defend the 700's, or the Azumas, or the GWR IET's clearly isn't as impartial as they claim. When the Intercity versions come out later in the year I predict there will be shockwaves through the industry, as passengers in other areas will rightly demand to know why their new trains are so substandard compared the Flirts.

I thought calling them Flirts was highly risky, and could have so easily backfired. In a way it has, but not how I expected. Because rather than Flirts, which are teases, they should have been called Cupids, as I am totally and utterly smitten. I will still travel many a mile to see a 37, but if I'm lucky, that travelling will be on a Flirt, and I really didn't expect to be saying that.


Monday, 8 July 2019

Modal Shift? In Their Dreams!

Last week, in case you missed it was "Catch The Bus Week". Suffolk County Council must have missed it as there wasn't a peep out of them. In fact Ipswich Buses were the only Suffolk operator I noticed give it a mention. While the rest of the country had lightning ticket sales and special events to encourage more people to use the bus in East Anglia it was depressingly quiet. Go East will point out that they Tweeted encouraging messages, and so they did. However, I do wonder how many of their followers don't already use the bus, and so they are Tweeting very much to the converted, which isn't the point of "Catch The Bus Week".

It was also "Steve's Car Fails MOT Week". I was fully expecting that, I put it in for an early test to see what needed to be done. What I wasn't expecting (no, not the Spanish Inquisition) was a "Do Not Drive" notice to be slapped on it, for handbrake, of all things. All of a sudden I'm a prisoner in my own village again until repairs are complete later this week. Annoying, but after 3 years back on the road it has given me the opportunity to see what my options are if I was to be totally reliant on public transport again, and if things have improved from 3 years ago, when changes to the DRT areas meant the service became as good as useless.

Well, many of you will have gone to the ECW event at East Anglia Transport Museum over the weekend. I would have ventured up there, if only to congratulate my former blog sparring partner, Sam Larke, on passing his PCV test and becoming one of the Lynx team. Well done, Sam - I have a feeling you will be an asset to the industry, as well as a useful contact!! Expect the long awaited Lynx feature in the next few weeks!

But I couldn't get there. I couldn't get out of the village unless I was prepared to pay £30 in taxi fares just to get to a bus stop. Which I wasn't. The Demand Responsive Service doesn't operate on Sundays, and doesn't serve my village - which is on an A road btw so not exactly a tiny hamlet - on Saturdays. To get to church yesterday I was reliant on the kindness of others. So a quiet weekend in it was. Tomorrow (Tuesday) I need to get to Wickham Market for my weekly social duties. That means DRT to Saxmundham then the 64 to Wickham (remembering that the 1457 conveniently terminates at Wickham Market and doesn't go back to Sax). So I rung Connecting Communities and luckily, mainly because I asked for middle of the day times I got roughly what I wanted.

Something has changed, however, in the last 3 years, which I have touched on before. The DRT services no longer accepts Concessionary Passes. This is the service which is meant to substitute for a local bus service remember, to take people without transport to the shops, doctors, friends, and link up with the main public transport network. It's not called Connecting Communities for nothing. So why are they charging the elderly and disabled now, who can use their passes on normal buses? Because DRT can be booked, and therefore comes under the rules governing coach services. How many people catch Megabus to the doctors, or National Express to the nearest bus stop! That rule governing services that can be booked was to protect long distance coach services, not community minibuses. Not going to exactly encourage people out of their cars that one is it!

So the return fare to Saxmundham is £5.20 for a round trip of 12 miles. That works out at 43.3p a mile. Ah but hang on - I'm only going to Saxmundham to catch the bus to Wickham Market, so forgetting about passes I'll need to pay again. (Waits for @FirstIpswich to answer fare enquiry) (Still waiting as First Twitter HQ in Leeds doesn't have fares data to hand and has to contact Ipswich Depot to find out - no, haven't made this up) (No, information not available on the website) (45 mins later I get my reply!) This is an extra £5.00 for a 17 mile round trip working out at 29.4p a mile. A lot cheaper than the minibus, and a timetabled service I can plan around rather than hope the stars are in the right pattern and a slot is available on the minibus.

But, and it's a big but, I live around 10 miles from Wickham Market using the back roads. A round trip of 20 miles, so how much per mile does that cost me when the car isn't in quarantine? Well, petrol is roughly 10p a mile, then we need to work out everything else. Obviously the more you use a car the cheaper it is to run. I do around 12,000 miles a year, which conveniently is 1,000 a month. Road tax costs me a 1.4p a mile. Insurance works out at 3.1p a mile, and maintenance around 4p a mile. So my round trip of 20 miles would cost me £3.70 instead of £10.20. It would also take 20 mins each way not an hour. And that's just me! If I had a partner the bus fare doubles but the car cost stays the same. You are not going to get people to give up their cars at those exchange rates.

Now a couple of Sundays ago I spent the best part of 16 hours riding on buses. I was in London, of course, and I'll get round to a separate post on that soon. If I lived in London I wouldn't need a car, unless I wanted to go outside London of course! But with London fares and what I'd save not having a car I could afford limousines the other end if necessary! The infrastructure is there. Buses are packed on Sundays. Locals use them because they are cheap and convenient. To put it in perspective if London rates and rules were in operation here my journey to Wickham Market would cost me £1.50 each way - CHEAPER than the car!!! It's a massive difference.

So next time you hear politicians bang on about wanting people to ditch the car for public transport laugh at them. If you live or have need to travel outside a major town or city it's a no brainer. And more cuts are happening to make them look even sillier. To expect people to shift modes without providing cheap, reliable, convenient and frequent alternatives is sheer folly. Quite simply the authorities need to put their money where their mouths are, subsidise buses to the same extent they do railways, and provide a realistic alternative to attract new users that doesn't include charging pensioners to go to the doctors. Actions speak louder than words, and certainly in this region actions are in a state of suspended animation. I want my car back!!

PS While I was waiting for First Ipswich in Leeds to respond I tweeted Stagecoach Southeast with a random fare enquiry, using a location I knew they wouldn't know from memory. I got a response in 6 minutes, with the fare and travel advice. Top marks there. Shows it can be done.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Austerity Strikes Again

Our beloved Government tell us austerity is over, and we have repaired the damage a few careless bankers caused us. Well I have news for the Government - it bloody isn't over, not in anyway, shape or form. Yesterday Suffolk County Council announced subsidies for 23 bus routes was ending. The small print has to be finalised, but these are the routes affected.

Service 90   Ipswich - Hadleigh - Mon - Sat evening and Sunday journeys

Service 796  Hadleigh to Manningtree Station  Mon - Fri 2 journeys each way

Service 98  Ipswich - Shotley Gate  Mon - Sat  1 journey each way

Service 202  Ipswich - Shotley  No current timetable found

Services M33/M44  Bury Town Circulars  Mon - Sat 1st journey of day and all Sunday journeys

Service 108  Lowestoft - James Paget Hospital  Mon - Fri 3 journeys each way

Services 377/386 Rattlesden/Stowmarket - Bury Mon - Sat 4 journeys each way

Services 387/456 Stowupland/Eye - Stowmarket  Mon - Sat 7 journeys each way overall

Service 62  Blaxhall - Wickham Market  Weds only 1 journey each way

Service 71  Sudbourne - Woodbridge  Mon - Sat 1 journey each way

Service 112  Hadleigh - Sudbury Tu/Thur One journey each way

Service 532  Laxfield - Beccles  Weds only  2 journeys each way

Service 94A  Hadleigh - Ipswich  Mon - Sat  1 journey each way

Service 87  Stowmarket - Ipswich  Sunday service

Service 120 Whatfield - Ipswich  Thurs only  one journey each way

Service 375 Alpheton - Bury   Mon - Sat  1 - 3 journeys each way

Services 461/2 Whatfield - Stowmarket  One journey each way various days

Service 482  Diss - Framlingham   Mon - Fri 3 journeys each way


Now there's nothing huge, nothing major in all that, unless, and it's a big unless, you are one of the people affected. I've travelled on a few of those routes, and they are a social event. It can be the only time people in isolated communities see anyone else, and they arrange their lives around that one day a week the bus runs. When I, and indeed Roger French, one of the most respected chaps in the industry travelled on the 532 it was full. There is no alternative for those people, and yes they were nearly all elderly, using passes, but isn't that the point? To maintain vital links for those who have no alternative. If it hasn't happened already there will be deaths on the roads through people driving when they shouldn't be purely because they have no alternative.

I understand Community Transport schemes are not going to be allowed to bid for these routes, and pending new Laws affecting volunteer drivers are also going to muddy the waters. As I have previously reported, SCC have already penalised those without a timetabled bus service by withdrawing by stealth the use of bus passes on Connecting Community buses, because they can be pre-booked. That rule exists to protect coach services, not to squeeze a fiver out of 85yo's going to the doctor. It is utterly reprehensible what SCC have done to the most vulnerable and isolated in our communities. Those so called consultations they held to hear public views and ideas on the future of rural transport were a total charade. No definitive report on them, and no new initiatives announced, despite ideas flowing from the floor.

So next time you hear a politician say austerity is over, invite him/her to visit the communities about to be unceremoniously cut off, so the Council can save a few quid. It leaves a nasty tasdte in the mouth, or at least should do.

So it was even more mind boggling when this tweet appeared from the Go Ahead Group yesterday.

I'm sorry - run that past me again! "The only links for people who would otherwise be isolated". Really? It isn't April 1st again is ir? Just to remind everyone, this is a list of routes abandoned by Go Ahead in Suffolk and Norfolk over the last 6 years, and I bet I've forgotten a few. With pending cuts to the 84, leaving the folks of Denton and Alburgh without a bus service, its still ongoing. But those folks will be reassured that Go Ahead appreciate what a vital link they supply.

1, 2, 2A, 5, 7, 7A, 22, 37B, 52A, 53, 53A, 53B, 57, 60, 60A, 60B, 60C, 60H, 60S, 61, 61A, 62, 63, 68, 69, 71A, 72A, 80, 81, 82, 82A, 83, 85, 86, 87, 88, 88A, 88B, 89, 90, 92 95, 164, 165

I will, of course, report on any of the routes that manage to be saved, as I suspect some will by various means. I hope for the sake of those affected I have plenty to report.



Friday, 7 June 2019

Ipswich Buses Scanias Go To Yorkshire

It's not often I get an exclusive these days - well I do, I'm just told not to publish them, and invariably someone else publishes before I do. For example I've known for months what the next X1 fleet is, but I'm not allowed to say - and I can guarantee someone will spill the beans before I'm given clearance.

So I'm delighted that this time I've got something first that I can publish! I noticed the other day that all six of Ipswich Buses Scania Omnicitys had been withdrawn and taken to Ensign's for disposal. I have a soft spot for those Scanias - they arrived in the area around the same time I did, and were the first examples I had been on, Lovely seats too. So I contacted Ross Newman at Ensign to see if any of them had found new homes yet.

I can exclusively (sorry) reveal that four of the Scanias have been bought by Connexions Bus of Harrogate. As yet I don't know which four, as soon as I do I'll let you know, but wouldn't surprise me if the four haven't been chosen yet. Ross kindly sent me a pic of former IB 71 YN56 NYC in Ensign's yard.

Former IB71 in Ensign's yard
My thanks to Ross for taking the time to get the bus out for the photo, and to Connexions Bus for allowing the news to be made public. As soon as I know the fate of the remaining two Scanias I shall report back! Might have to return to Harrogate too....

Thursday, 6 June 2019

It's A Funny Old Game

I'm still undecided about social media, if it's a good or bad thing. It can showcase things that otherwise would go unnoticed, bring far flung friends together, illustrate selfless acts to rescue animals, or raise awareness of good causes. It can also have its unsavoury side, much like real life.

Today I've been called "sour", cynical", "childish", "unchristian",  "close minded", "bitter", invited to start saying thank you to waiting staff and my postman, and this has been made and supported by so called industry professionals, including some in high positions. And my crime? What did I do to provoke this catalogue of criticism and name calling?

Well, I was going through Twitter this morning, and I spotted a Tweet for the 4th day running from Network Rail, proclaiming the success of the recent closure of the Southend line. Overhead lines and gantries have been replaced, and the line was shut for 9 days to allow the works. It had been well publicised for months, and an informative video was posted, showing what had been done and what still needed to be done. All very good. However, and this is what caught my eye, it was the wording of the tweet...


Hang on a sec - what was that - you're pleased to confirm you finished the job on time 4 days ago? Firstly I think everyone will have noticed trains are running again, and most importantly it's Network Rail's job to get the work done on time. That is why they are paid billions of taxpayers money every year. It struck me that I can't think of another profession (except sport) where people expect public praise for doing their job. Can you imagine Yorkshire miners in their heyday coming out of t'pit, and wanting a fanfare because they'd mined sufficient coal to justify their wages? Do Ambulance Trusts tweet everyday how many lives they save and how many were reached in the target time in order to get praise? My postman doesn't tweet every day that he successfully completed his round without putting any mail through the wrong letterbox. Of course not. It's their job, and they do it brilliantly, without seeking attention.

Now, don't get me wrong - it's vitally important that the travelling public, of which I'm one, is kept fully informed of engineering projects and their progress. We need to see where improvements are made and where the money goes, although that doesn't help when your train is delayed or diverted due to the ubiquitous signal and points failures that plague the system. So it's good PR, and shows what is done when lines are closed. But do you really have to proclaim that you've finished a job on time? Doesn't that just point out how often it doesn't?

So I tweeted the following.


I did play the hymns perfectly too - and got praise for it, as I did the Beatles number I played after the service which linked in to the theme of the day. What I didn't get was praise for turning up on time or wearing appropriate attire, or not falling asleep in the sermon. Some things should be accepted as the norm, and finishing a job on time should be one of them, in my view. Imagine had Network Rail's tweet been worded thus:

"We are pleased to announce that the engineering works to replace overhead lines and structures has gone smoothly, and as a result passengers can now expect fewer disruption in adverse weather conditions - thank you for your patience while the works were carried out".

Then they might not have got the reaction they did - here is the link to the tweet so you can view the responses, click here.

Anyhow, you'd have thought I'd said Network Rail were the Devil Incarnate from the response I got. Which proves a theory I've had for sometime, that the rail industry, from the Department of Transport, to Network Rail, to train operating companies, to the rail media are so out of touch with the travelling public it beggars belief. Why the hell should passengers on the Southend line be overjoyed engineering works finished on time 2 days previously when at the precise moment that tweet was posted on Tuesday there were no trains running on the line due to a points failure at Shenfield! They pay thousands a year for a service. They have a right to expect works to finish on time and every right to complain when they don't. Until such time as the industry grasps that simple fact, and puts the customer first, as some - but still too few - bus operators have realised (Harrogate Bus including the top banana were handing out free breakfasts on the 36 this morning) then passengers will not see many benefits.

The entire attitude of the railways needs to change - the "blame someone else" culture is at pandemic proportions, and self-congratulatory posts will do nothing to appease the customer. There are exceptions to that, but very few among the people with influence, and that affects the staff on the ground who do an exceptional job. I'm reminded of a quote from Blackadder Goes Forth when General Melchett tells the troops "Don't forget, Captain DArling and I are right behind you", to which Blackadder replies "About 35 miles behind you"! The rail staff on the ground must feel like that sometimes.

So to everyone who sank a lot lower than was really called for today, including some very surprising names I make this pledge. I will continue to side with the passenger as I am a passenger who just happens to know a bit more about how things operate than most. I will praise where its deserved, and I did that today too to Greater Anglia about their friendly staff, and for rescuing a family of swans off the line at Somerleyton. But I will also continue to comment about things that I think make the railway look stupid, and saying yippee we finished something on time is one of them. Not when the very people you are saying yippee to are stuck with no trains! If you don't like it stop following me - social media gives you that choice so use it. Then I can't upset you.




Monday, 27 May 2019

Here Are The News!

In recent weeks I've been travelling on or observing new things. So I thought it about time I put them altogether in a single post. I'll do it in chronological order. which just so happens means I start with the worst and finish with something I liked!

We start with the hideousness that are Great Northern's new Class 717 Siemens trains which are being introduced on the Moorgate to Hertford, Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth routes. They replace the long serving Class 313's who really have reached the end of their days. But, and this is a big but, are the 717's an improvement? After 40 years of the 313's what will make the journeys for Hertfordshire commuters that much better? Well there are no loos, no 1st Class which means no possible escape from those dreadful seats, the same as on the Thameslink 700's. There are information signs and more standing room for even more sardines, air conditioning. hard to find power points but no usb sockets, and a door opening siren that sounds like a 3yo impersonating a fire engine. They are also very grey.

The new Great Northern 717 at Alexandra Palace

Those seats, an utter insult

The Class 313 being replaced

If I was a Great Northern commuter, these new trains would make me seek alternative ways or routes to travel. Hertfordshire is spoiled for choice with not just Great Northern lines but the West Coast mainline and even the Metropolitan Line, also going through Moorgate with considerably more comfortable trains. To pay thousands a year in fares to be treated to that sort of comfort level is an insult. Oh - to those screaming for nationalisation - it was the Department of Transport who specified the trains, not Great Northern. I will not be rushing back to them.

On the same day I also tried out Great Western Railway's smart looking Class 387 Electrostars, the last batch of Electrostars to be built. A much nicer interior and atmosphere, and the Electrostars accelerate impressively fast on the overhead lines, much faster than their 3rd rail counterparts. Again the seats were hard, but not as woeful as the 717's. But it's worth noting that after the original 357's on C2C, of which more later, the 375/6/7/8's for Southeastern, and the early 377's for Southern, the seats on Electrostars have been getting increasingly worse too. Why is this? I have yet to get a satisfactory answer. Anyhow, impressive trains that would be brilliant with better seating.

The GWR Electrostar at Paddington

Interior of the 387

Moving to the road now, and a couple of weeks ago en route to Kent to collect Mother for her annual State Visit, I popped into the oasis of buses that is Ensignbus in Purfleet. This had been planned for sometime, and I was lucky enough to get a long chat with Paul Dickson, whose official title I don't know (except "Teapot"), but he does about everything there is to do with timetabling, planning, operating the Twitter feed, traffic busting, and organising the Running Day. A lovely bloke, great conversationalist, and vital component in Ensign's engine room.

I then went to see Ross Newman, Operations Director, who I knew had a new toy, two new toys to be precise. By pure coincidence Ensign had taken delivery of two brand new BCI Enterprises from China the day before. They were originally bound for Reading Buses who developed cold feet and cancelled them. Ensign said they'd have them, and Ross was eager to take me for a spin in one of them. You will know I am a fan of the Enterprise, but this one blew me away. To get such power from a Euro 6 engine is astonishing. Quiet, smooth, no rattles, and then the seats. Oh my word the seats. If you are sitting anywhere for a long period of time comfort is important. You don't want to get off with muscles aching, a numb backside, and feeling every second you've spent on board. Without a shred of doubt the seats on that BCI are the most comfortable bus seats I've ever sat on. My back had been playing up and when I sat down it positively purred. The lumber support is magnificent. So much so I forgot to note the lack of hand rails, the usb chargers, the phone holders and the tables! The Enterprises are going to be used, as far as I know, on a new London - Southend Airport shuttle starting soon. The night time services will connect with the first and last flights in and out of Southend Airport that do not have rail connections. Since the service will call at Lakeside I have a feeling Bluewater and Upminster have just lost out when I need somewhere to park for my London trips!


The new Enterprise, still to receive number plates and fleet number
They don't look much but those seats are incredible!

I was enthusing about those seats to Ross when he started on a rant about train seats. Ross travels to work on C2C, and asked if I had been on one of the new 379's that C2C recently introduced. I haven't, but get the impression they are similar to Southeastern's 375/9's, which are ghastly to sit on. Like me, Ross cannot understand that as bus seats get better train seats are getting worse. Good for the bus industry though. He said he always tries to get one of the infinitely more comfortable 20yo 357's, which again doesn't say much for progress on our railways.

Which brings me to Saturday, when I had a day out t'Yorkshire. Another bonus I hadn't planned for was London Overground introducing the first of the new Class 710 units on the Barking to Gospel Oak line. Just the 18 months overdue Bombardier have finally sorted the software problems out and the first of the trains entered service on Thursday. So I started the day earlier than planned to try one out.

First impressions are they look good, far better in the flesh than they do in photos. As is the norm with LO all the seats are side facing, which is a shame though understandable. The seats are hard, though not as uncomfortable as a 717, and the interior is, well, sparse to say the least. There are usb sockets but only at the front and rear of each coach, and the ones between coaches you would have to be standing to use them. But as it's only a 35 min journey end to end that's not vitally important. The WiFi worked, the aircon was reasonable, and the ride utterly superb. Savage acceleration when needed, which the very friendly and chatty driver told me he used sparingly in case "there were any old ladies standing up", although I think he did show off a bit on the way back to Blackhorse Rd, where I transferred to the Victoria Line. He also said the driving cabs were brilliant, and indeed they look more like a TGV cab than a 35 min inner city line. I liked the trains, they suit the line well, and I look forward to returning.

The 710 arrives at Barking


The interior

I thought it was to charge phones but whatever!

The charging points between coaches

So onto Kings Cross. I had carefully chosen to book on the 1103 to Leeds, as
I knew it would be one of LNER's much publicised Hitachi Azuma trains. I had booked to return on a classic HST and wanted the comparison. I arrived at Kings Cross early, and took advantage of the time to grab some photo opportunities I may never get again.

Two old ladies together, what service they have given

91119 in Intercity Swallow livery, looks really good

The Azuma rightly deferring to its elder

The Azumas do look the part from the outside

Now a history lesson. On 3rd July 1938 Mallard set the world steam record on the East Coast Main Line near Grantham at 126mph. On 25th May 2019, almost 81 years later, I travelled up the ECML on a brand new train, the most advanced to ever grace the line, at 125mph. Ok. some poetic licence there as Mallard didn't do 126mph in service, but you get my point. Where have we advanced in 81 years in comparison to countries such as Japan, China and France. I can guarantee in 1938 the seats will have been better too. There is no way on this Earth that I will ever travel from London to Inverness or Aberdeen on one of these things. Ever. I would recommend splitting the journey, which may well work out cheaper anyway. Suffer the Azuma to York, only two hours, then get Cross Country to Edinburgh, either a voyager or HST to Edinburgh, then one of Scotrails refurbished HST's to the North of Scotland. Better still get a WCML Pendolino to Glasgow and HST from there.

The Azuma did have a couple of good points - sliding doors are a great improvement, and the reservation indicators were superb and very easy to understand. However...

The WiFi didn't work, one of the toilets was blocked and wouldn't flush, the announcements were far too quiet, the ride itself I found on the rough side, very few seats actually marry up with windows, the power points are impossible to find unless you know they are there, it was hot and stuffy despite the aircon and I heard people questioning if it was actually a new train. That's not a positive start.

The Azuma 800113 at Kings Cross

The interior of Standard class

Those seats are not good - and does there have to be such a big gap between windows?

Arrival at Leeds

We did arrive at Leeds on time though, and I caught a local bus down to the Bus Station, to catch Transdev's flagship 36 to Harrogate. It was a 15 plate Streetdeck, with gorgeous interior, luxury seating and all mod cons. It also rattled considerably less than it did on my last journey on the 36 so well done Transdev for tackling that issue. It was noticed!

We arrived at a busy Harrogate and I set about achieving the main aim of the day - to try out Harrogate bus's new Electric Volvo's. It was worth the travelling.

I've been on BYD electric buses in London and have yet to be wowed. Harrogate's electric buses, however, are in a different league. The interiors are superb, comfy seats, usb and even wireless charging, next stop announcements, and huge windows. The ride is smooth, acceleration impressive and they are insanely quiet compared to the BYD's. At traffic lights the lack of idling vibration compared to the diesel version is very pleasing. The driver said he loved them, and they were a joy to drive. All we need now is someone to be brave and put electric buses on longer routes, rather than 30 min round trip local estate routes. That will be interesting. But again my congratulations to Harrogate Bus and Transdev for giving me the all to rare sensation of liking a new bus that isn't Optare or BCI.


The Harrogate Bus electric Volvo 9700
Part of the interior, including wireless charging

The weather was closing in, the traffic had been awful, so I decided to get the train back to Leeds. Northern Rail have recently replaced the infamous Pacers on the Harrogate line with ex Scotrail 3 car 170's, and I was lucky enough to get one of the refurbished units. I would have cheerfully remained on it back to London. The seats were the best train seats I'd sat on all day, it had been recarpeted and power points added. The conductor told me passengers loved them, and so did I. Northern have come in for some stick recently, but credit where it's due, these 170's feel like new trains should, even if they're not new!

The refurbished 170 in Northern livery

One of the 170's still in Scotrail colours

The interior of the refurbished 170

Back at a very wet Leeds it was time to return to London. I had noted earlier that the HST booked to operate the journey had broken down in North Scotland so waited anxiously to see what had replaced it. Luck was in, as in rolled the on loan HST tractor units from East Midlands Trains. It was time to compare the HST to the Azuma. Well, the seats on the Mark III coaches were infinitely more comfortable, I could hear the announcements, I wasn't hot, seats lined up with windows in the main, the power points were easier to find. The WiFi still didn't work but hey ho. It was also a much more pleasant ride, despite some of my fellow passengers not being so enjoyable until they thankfully left us at Doncaster. Given the choice between the new and the old I'll take the old anytime, and it will be interesting to see what the reaction is to the Azumas when they start going long distance. Leeds was just about bearable. Any further and I'll be looking for alternatives.


The EMT HST at Leeds
The much nicer seats on the HST

So what conclusions are there? Well, proof once again that out with the old and in with the new isn't necessarily a good thing. The 717's aren't as nice as the 313's. The Azumas aren't a patch on the HST's. The 710's are decent trains with much more room yet less comfortable than the 172's they replace. But the refurbished 170's are lovely, and I assume the same rules applies to refurbishment as it does new. If the Government is serious about modal shift and getting people out of cars and onto rail they are going completely the wrong way about it. Unless you live by a station on the whole journeys by train take longer than cars and are more expensive than cars. It certainly wouldn't have cost me the best part of £100 in petrol to travel from here to Harrogate. Make trains far less comfy than cars too, and you will not achieve your goal.

Buses, however, outside East Anglia at least, are making an effort. Ironic that they get far less funding than rail does. Electric buse are the future, and we need the Government to invest nationwide in infrastructure to encourage people to use buses instead of cars whenever possible. Plug the green factor to death! (Sorry, pun really wasn't intended but too tired to change it now) Bus operators are finally realising that you need to put the customer first. This has yet to reach the minds of many rail operators, or indeed the Department of Transport.

You will notice from the header picture that the Greater Anglian Flirt went testing to Lowestoft for the first time this week, and I snapped it crossing Reedham Bridge for the first time. I sincerely hope my review of them when they are introduced is more favourable than other new trains around.