Saturday, 27 June 2020

Suffolk To Get New Bus Route

Yes, you read that correctly. In these dark times for public transport with everyone still being told to avoid unessential use (unless the sun's out, obviously) and fears for the future of vulnerable routes nationwide, I can exclusively (sorry but it's been a long time since I've had the chance to use that word) reveal that from September 1st Borderbus are introducing a new service 522, which will operate from Aldeburgh to Peasenhall. Except it mainly won't as the route is split into two overlapping sections - Aldeburgh to Saxmundham and Leiston to Peasenhall. 

Why Peasenhall, I hear you ask. Why indeed, and honestly I haven't got a clue! But since I live there and our last bus ran in March 2016 I'm not complaining one iota. I'm fairly certain, despite the good friendship I have with the Borderbus team, that this bus isn't being put on just for my benefit, although it certainly will benefit me. I know residents in the West side of Yoxford, for example have always commented that the Aldeburgh - Halesworth 521 doesn't serve nearly enough of the village, and after Yoxford the next turning point is Peasenhall. Even so, in 2016 we had an open your own door Transit minibus, one return journey to Saxmundham 4 days a week, and now there will be 5 journeys each way with a double decker! This obviously indicates a school journey involved, and indeed that is the case, as you can see in the timetable below.

I'm guessing here, but it looks like Borderbus have won a school contract serving Leiston Academy from Whincops of Peasenhall, which would explain the Peasenhall terminus. I really should have asked but I'm a little rusty after 3 and a half months so I'm sure Andrew Pursey will correct me if I'm wrong. Sir John Leman School in Beccles continues to attract pupils from all over the county, and the Leiston to SJL is either a new route or a contract won from another operator. Either way it's great to see the buses put to good use while the kids are at school - if it's ever safe for them to go back that is!

However, as locals will know, there is already an hourly service between Saxmundham and Aldeburgh provided by First Eastern Counties' 64 from Ipswich. I can't see any variations to the route on the 522, so is there the demand for another bus, especially between Leiston and Saxmundham where there really isn't much apart from fields. This is where the theoretical side of me has gone into overdrive.

Chris Speed of FEC has long told me the 64 loses money hand over fist between Wickham Market and Saxmundham - indeed a few years ago it went to two hourly before being restored to hourly through council subsidy. Will the introduction of the 522 give First the excuse they need to pull out of Aldeburgh and Saxmundham once and for all? Will Suffolk CC still subsidise the Wickham Market to Sax part of the journey at a reduced frequency or will that link be lost forever?

If First pull out of Aldeburgh then will Borderbus step in and restart the immensely popular Anglian 165 Aldeburgh to Ipswich via Snape service that was so savagely cut by Phil Eden when he replaced Andrew Pursey there. One of the reasons was logistics in case of breakdown - it's a long way from Beccles to Ipswich to deal with a breakdown, but Anglian managed it pre Go Ahead so who knows what the long term thinking is. It's going to be interesting to watch developments.

My job now is to make sure the people of Peasenhall actually use the bus so there is no excuse to get rid of it again. Easier said than done, but opportunities like this don't happen every day! My thanks to Andrew for surprising me with the news (that's an understatement) and giving me the green light to go public. I should also say that Borderbus have retained the tender for the 521 for another 5 years, which is good news for both them, and the communities served by that important link. A 5 year tender in the current climate is some achievement, I think.

There will be another post in a few days with an update on a bus I was lucky enough to drive in days of yore, that I featured a few years ago on here. In the meantime stay safe, and try to avoid the lemmings who think the virus has gone and it's back to normal!

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.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Blog Trip To Nottingham

First of all an apology - the light on Thursday was abysmal all day for taking photos, so I'm sorry that some of them aren't as clear as I'd have liked.

Last week I received a very tempting offer from East Midlands Railway - London return to anywhere on the Midland Mainline for up to 4 people at £15 each. Immediately I knew what had to be done. My blog partner and best friend, Tim, had never been on an HST. Not once. Ever. In 45 years. This could not be allowed to continue, and with the MML now the only place to find HST's out of London this was the chance I'd been waiting for. Initially I thought Sheffield - may as well go as far as you can, but it transpired EMR's old girls mainly do the St Pancras - Nottingham run so that was decided for me.

I cunningly planned the journey so Tim would also get his first rides on a Class 745 Stadler both ways from Ipswich and thus our day began bright and early on the East Suffolk Line, Tim starting from Beccles and yours truly at Darsham. It also started late, which meant squeaky bum time almost immediately as to if we'd make the connection at Ipswich onto the 745. It was much too close for comfort at our ages involving a veritable sprint over the footbridge between platforms 4 and 2 at the Suffolk terminus. However, made it we did, and were soon breezing through the North Essex countryside at 100mph heading for London. Not for the first time I was thankful that the only new trains in the country (that I've been on) I actually like are on my own patch. They are different, quirky, go like stink and I've already grown very fond of them.

We made our way from Liverpool St to St Pancras via the Farringdon Cheat - that is by switching from Underground to Thameslink at Farringdon to avoid the ridiculously long walk from Kings Cross/St Pancras Underground station to the trains at St Pancras. Get Thameslink and you emerge right opposite the EMR entrance. We got to the platform barriers, and there was our steed looking majestic. A lot of you will relate to the feeling of anticipation you get when you know what lies ahead in cases like that.

The scene that greeted us at St Pancras
Although the train had yet to be advertised we were allowed through the barriers to take some photos, with nothing but friendly faces in evidence. So we did, and I can't help wondering if there has ever been a more photogenic train than the HST125. Note I said train not locomotive so all you steam fans get back in your box!



HST heaven at St Pancras
Having finished our photographic duties we found our seats and nattered. In fact we nattered so intently we failed to notice that we continued to be the only ones on board. Until a chap came up and asked if we were travelling. "Yes", I replied, "on the 1034." Rather apologetically the chap said "erm, this is the 1134, the 1034 has just left from platform 1", the train on the right in the above pic, which had not arrived when we entered the platform. It arrived and turned round in 10 mins! That never happened at Kings Cross or Paddington! Cue some red faces and some grovelling to the rather amused Conductor on the 1105 to Nottingham, who let us travel on that instead. Which was great apart from one tiny detail...

Oh dear...
...It wasn't an HST, which was rather the object of the exercise. But neither of us had been on a Meridian, and at least it was the right one for the year. To all intents and purposes Meridians are Voyagers, but with a different interior, and that makes a difference. I found the Meridian far more pleasant to travel on than a Voyager, certainly less cramped, and it seemed more sturdy and quiet too. I would happily travel on one again, in fact I intend to.

We arrived on time in a very dreary and murky Nottingham. It's been many decades since I was in Nottingham, and even then not in the centre, so having bought our excellent value combined bus, tram and train tickets to give us freedom of Greater Nottingham and beyond we jumped on our first tram. I like trams. Yes, the initial set up is costly and disruptive but once in operation they are Godsends. You don't get utilities constantly digging the track up, or numpties parking on them causing delays. Some of the roads we went on were normal terraced streets that you wouldn't expect trams on. But trams there were, and the sight of two enormous Park & Ride sites on the route, full trams and no cars in the City Centre speaks for itself. Another big car park at the terminus in Hucknall.

One of the giant Park & Ride sites served by the trams
Both types of tram in use in Nottingham

The tram we travelled on at Hucknall terminus
The Hucknall Park & Ride site
One subject dominated our conversation, and that was why on Earth isn't there a tram system in Norwich. Like Nottingham Norwich has an airport, a thriving University, a large population, well used business areas and a popular City Centre. It's screaming out for a Nottingham style desire to rid the City Centre of traffic and build a modern, convenient, cheap transit system that will make people WANT to leave their cars at home or at the Park & Ride sites. It could be up and running in 5 years if the desire was there. But it won't be because there isn't. To further compare our combined bus, tram and train ticket cost £5.10 - a Norwich Area Fusion day ticket, which only covers the 4 main bus operators costs £7.00. Of course no one's going to leave their car at home.

We had intended to get the bus back into Nottingham, however our day of embarrassment continued when we couldn't find the bus stop, despite using Google Maps and any other aid we could access. When we did find a stop for a longer route the bus didn't turn up so we caught the train, and as it turned out that was a good decision.

It is rare these days to get a really comfortable train seat, and the EMR 158's we get at Norwich aren't the worst seats but not exactly the best either. Ok to Ely or Peterborough but I wouldn't want to go much further than that. So it was a joy to sit on the seats on 158889, which are the most comfy train seats I've sat on for years. It turns out that this unit is ex South West Trains, and the difference in comfort is striking. I don't know how many of them they have, but can we have them on the Norwich run please!

Really, really nice seats

158889 at Nottingham
I had realised very quickly that you need more than 4 hours to take in what Nottingham has to offer. We never got near a bus, and that is something that needs to be put right. I'm hoping to spend a couple of days there later in the year, when it's warmer and brighter, because I have a feeling Nottingham is a City many others should use as a blueprint for the future. It made a deep impression on me.

Anyway back to Nottingham Station, and I had seen on Realtime Trains that Network Rail's Flying Banana HST Test Train was passing through half hour before our train to London departed. Another first for Tim, and this time the planning paid off!

In fading light the "Flying Banana" passes through Nottingham
The other end of the banana with 43081.
The sharp eyed among you may have noticed something familiar in the first banana pic. Trying not to be seen at the back is one of the recently transferred Class 156 DMU's from Greater Anglia to EMR. This one was 156412, now renumbered 156912, which used to be the Sudbury branch's pride and joy.

156912 on a local service to Newark
Then, finally, after 45 years of waiting, Tim travelled on an HST, an experience so exciting and nerve tingling he was asleep before we left! (I was up early! T) He did manage to stay awake for most of the journey though, so he can tick it off his bucket list.

Tim: Because it was dark I didn't get the full speed feeling as the smoothness and comfort felt so good I now know what I had missed. Really grateful to Steve for the idea and our faux pas will go down in folklore but that's the joy of travel. Bonus on the Banana as it is not seen by many from our area.

43089 back at St Pancras
It was a return journey in all senses back home, a freight train blocking the platforms at Ipswich held us up on the still impressive 745, and it was another sprint across that dratted footbridge and a run almost to Westerfield as the bi-modes still can't use the full length of Platform 1 at Ipswich in case they pull the wires down! We are getting too old for that!

So, in conclusion, a day to remember and laugh at. Thanks to Tim for his company, thanks to the EMR staff who are friendly, very friendly. So many staff said hello to us on the platforms at Nottingham which was really nice, you don't get that everywhere. Thanks to the Conductor for letting two twits travel on a later than booked train, thanks to Phil from Modern Railways for his advance tips and advice and most of all thank you to Nottingham for making me want to return. It was like the sample of the wine the sommelier  gives you for approval. I heartily approve and I want the rest of it.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

007 Ends 61 Years Of Hurt On GEML

What year 1958 was - Great Balls of Fire was no 1, Bolton Wanderers won the FA Cup, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister, and the first section of motorway in the UK, the Preston Bypass opened. It was also the last time the Great Eastern Main Line had a brand new train make its maiden trip. Until today.

61 years down the line and the first Greater Anglia brand new Intercity train left Norwich at 0740 to begin a new chapter of history. The 12 car Stadler, 745007 made light work of the 114.5 mile journey, arriving in Liverpool St 3 minutes early. But what of the trains themselves? I boarded this morning expecting a longer version of the bi-mode 755's. To some extent they are, but to my surprise in other ways they are entirely different.

745007 at Norwich waiting to form the 0740 to London
The ride is effortless, with thanks to Roger French aka Busandtrainuser for that word, as I was struggling. He's right, you're doing 100mph before you know it without acceleration to take your breath away. Quiet, smooth, visual through the large windows. Air conditioning at the right temperature for me at least - everyone is different so that really is a matter of taste. Comfortable seats as on the bi-modes, WiFi, charging points, the familiar and reassuring voice of Julie Berry on the announcements, two refreshment trolleys and a cafe bar, far more seats than the old trains and you have a bit of a winner. It is, quite simply, like no other train in the UK.

It's a looong train!
Like the bi-modes the seats over the bogies are raised, but not every coach is the same. Some are like the bi-modes, where the end seats are raised by a step, but others the floor slopes up so most of the seats are raised with no step. Of course that means the floor also slopes down in the next coach which could prove entertaining. First Class is quirky beyond measure with quiet secluded sections, raised cubby hole type tables, and seats that appear quite firm at first, but didn't seem to feel any harder as the journey progressed, so once they are bedded in I think they'll be fine. The only negative point I heard was regarding the very bright lighting. It would be good if there was a lower setting, especially as the reading lights above the seats are of particularly good quality.

One of the quirky First Class tables
The Cafe Bar looked attractive, but it is heavily towards the First Class end of the traiu, so if you are in the rear standard coach you have a considerable walk to get to the cafe bar, and I'd rely on the trolley! I expected more toilets too, only 5 for the whole train and only one accessible toilet, again at the First Class end where the only wheelchair bays are. That might be something that needs retrospectively looking at as those 5 loos are going to be extremely well used, so tanking is going to be vital.

The Cafe Bar area
I travelled back from London in the company of the aforementioned Roger French, and the Deputy Editor of Modern Railways magazine, Phil Sherratt, and we had a tete a tete comparing the 745's to other new fleets around the country. The general conclusion was these 745's are just about the best new trains around right now, including the IET's on GWR and LNER. I would much rather travel to Scotland on a 745 than Azuma, and no one disagreed. It made for a really interesting journey, so thanks to Roger and Phil for their company and wisdom.

Waiting at Liverpool St to return to Norwich
And back at Norwich with one of the old warhorse Class 90's for company
It was at Norwich that Phil came into his own. Sometimes the obvious is that obvious it goes straight over your head, well it does mine, and I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed that the grey and white on the 745's is the mirror of that on the 755's. A nice touch and another example of the thought that has gone into these units.

Compare this 755/3 with the 745.
One final quirk. Walking through them at the halfway stage you reach what looks very similar to the engine compartments on the bi-modes. No engines on these 745's though so what are they? I asked the friendly driving team who told me they were, in fact cab ends without the cab, as the 12 car units are, it turns out two 6 car units joined together. That means they can be split in the sheds for maintenance purposes if necessary.

The middle of the train outside

And inside
In conclusion I think the huge majority of passengers will love these trains, the level access and wide doors make boarding and alighting much easier, the on board facilities will be popular, but if you're travelling home on a Friday evening I suggest you use the loos at the station, because I fear the on board ones will be in great demand. The short set enticed enthusiasts from round the country to the area. I have a feeling Greater Anglia's unique new fleet will too. They have set the bar high, and make fleets only months older look already dated. 61 years melted away in 115 minutes.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

In Defence Of Greater Anglia

No, I haven't lost the plot over the silly season, or suddenly found a partner working for Greater Anglia! I have been as frustrated with constant delays and cancellations on our railway network as anyone else, but I have been equally as frustrated at the false information put out by local media and armchair warriors as to who is to blame for the mass disruption to Greater Anglia services in recent weeks.

I'll tell you right now it is NOT Greater Anglia.

Those who know how the railway works, or indeed doesn't work these days will be aware that Greater Anglia have little say on anything. I have studied a franchise application and the Department of Transport control everything from train formations to when staff are allowed to break wind. Well almost. So let me try to explain the predicament Greater Anglia have found themselves in.

As part of the franchise agreement Abellio pledged to replace every single train on the Greater Anglia network. That's a lot of trains. Not only that but they pledged to design the new trains themselves, rather than leave it up to the people at the DfT who think ironing board seats are perfect for long distance travel, and we have already seen the care and thought that went into the design of the Stadlers - they are amazing trains. However, not all has run smoothly.

First of all when GA announced the timetable for the introduction of the new trains the DfT went "Whoopee - we can use your old trains elsewhere"! Promptly set dates for lease contracts to end on current rolling stock, promising them to other operators all over the country, and Wales! That did not allow sufficient time for testing, driver training, and above all the teething troubles which occur with all new fleets. And boy have there been teething troubles, some of which, with the best will in the world, can not have been predicted.

I still have not heard a definitive reason why the signals stopped recognising trains, or level crossings ceased behaving themselves. I do know it affected more than the Stadlers, however, so to level all the blame at them, which many have done is inaccurate at best, and if you are in the media plain irresponsible. You can test and test and test, and indeed the Stadlers had been in service for many weeks before these problems surfaced, coinciding with leaf fall season, yet not predict a problem like that. Network Rail were entirely correct to say hang on a sec, if our signals aren't recognising those trains, then those trains cannot run. Imagine the outcry if they had shrugged it off, then a fatal collision at a level crossing had ensued, or, with so many single line sections in our area, another Cowden type incident. Damned if you do damned if you don't. Greater Anglia is obliged to adhere to Network Rail's instructions. Network Rail own the tracks, signals and everything else. It is the equivalent of the Highways Agency putting a weight restriction on a road meaning double deckers can no longer operate on it. Not the bus operator's fault, and if most of their fleet is deckers then there are problems that cannot be solved overnight.

But why has the impact been so acute compared to other operating companies introducing new trains? Well, it's really quite simple. Most other operators are replacing trains that are being scrapped, or stored at the very least. LNER have had all the time in the world to introduce the Azumas, as apart for a few HST sets to East Midland Railway, nothing was being cascaded anywhere else. GWR was the same as apart from a handful of sets to Scotrail nothing was needed elsewhere. Northerns new 195's are replacing to be scrapped Pacers, Great Northern's 717's replacing to be scrapped 313's, Scotrails 385's replace to be scrapped 314's. Yes a few 170's have moved South to Northern but there was no exact timescale on that. No other operator was going to lose their entire fleet to other operators as GA have done with the 170's and 153's to Wales, and now the 156's to EMR.

Except one. That one being London Overground, whose entire fleet of Class 172 demus operating the Gospel Oak - Barking line was promised to West Midlands Railway on completion of the electrification of the Goblin line. And duly, on the set date they did. Except their replacements weren't ready due to late delivery by Bombardier. London Overground had to adapt some Class 378's and operate a 50% service for months - and that's only a 6 train fleet! GA's is a whole lot bigger and they, through no fault of theirs, have lost most of the existing fleet before any problems with the new fleet could be identified let alone ironed out. When Southeastern introduced the 375's we had untold software updates to correct little niggles, but there was no pressure to get rid of the slam doors until the 375's were bedded in. Rank stupidity by the DfT, but we should know that by now, and they will be controlled by the same party for the next 5 years!

The problems involving the Stadlers has caused havoc with driver training, which is behind, and testing on the remainder of the new fleet, where each individual unit has to be tested for a certain amount of trouble free miles before it is allowed into traffic. Had GA had their old fleet to fall back on the disruptions would have been minimal. But they didn't, and could do nothing about it.

So why wasn't the short set brought back? Why weren't trains earmarked for scrapping in other areas brought in as a temporary stop gap? Firstly, who was going to pay for it? GA certainly weren't, and who can blame them when it seems the infrastructure, more than the trains was at fault. Stadler certainly weren't, as it hasn't been proven their trains were to blame. Network Rail certainly weren't, as they aren't responsible for passengers, and the DfT were busy fighting an election and there was no one to take decisions. Stalemate. Secondly all drivers and guards have to be qualified to work the types of train they do, and if they go too long without working them need to be retrained. No one at GA is trained on pacers, or HST's, which were the only diesel types being withdrawn. A conversation with a Norwich Conductor told me most of the staff's qualification on the short set had lapsed, so what with the Stadler training still ongoing it would have been no gain at all, despite more than I wishing the broads and marshes were echoing to the sound of English Electric's best again.

So GA were stuck between a rock and a hard place, and ultimately, as is always the case, it was the travelling public who suffered. Now, because the knock on effect has also impacted on the introduction of the Intercity 745's, mainline passengers are enduring sets that really shouldn't be out there. GA had a plan to keep a few sets in reserve, which had been spruced up a bit, in case there were teething probs with the 745's. Those sets are being spruced up at Bounds Green now, which means sets that no one expected to still be running are. It's far from ideal, but anything is better than nothing.

So, now I've put the record straight have GA handled this perfectly? No. I think the communication to customers has been poor, and we haven't seen enough people at stations explaining situations. Trouble is, as I alluded to earlier, no one seems to know what the real problem is, and you can't give information out if you haven't got it. I'm reminded of the lady at Faversham one chaotic Friday evening who berated me for not announcing I had no information to announce, while I was on the phone frantically trying to get some information to announce. I do believe, however, that GA could have been quicker to jump on the false news being banded about, especially by local media, which would have helped their reputation a little, and guided the public towards the facts, rather than fallacy and sensationalism. Except GA aren't allowed to blame NR or the DfT for anything. Operating companies are the Government's whipping boys, and let's face it if someone has given you a franchise you aren't going to then publicly criticise them, and since the DfT, who gave GA the franchise also own Network Rail.....

It would have been easy to jump on the bandwagon of criticism for GA. In my recent travels I have been as inconvenienced as anyone - Thursday alone I was affected by 5 cancellations and a poor signalling decision, but, just like GA I was a victim of circumstances honestly out of my control. GA could never have reasonably expected anything like the problems there have been, and ultimately it was down to the DfT to sort it out, but they went AWOL, apart from the new MP's now making a noise trying to make a name for themselves. GA have been operating with both hands behind their back, their mouth gagged, and as usual the front line staff have taken most of the grief. Hopefully the situation will soon be resolved. Ironically the 21 day closure of the Wherry lines in February will give some breathing space, as long as the new signals actually recognise the trains!

When all routes are operating normally I'll resume my reports because there has been some good news amongst the disruption, such as the new Norwich - Stansted service. But that can wait until everyone is a bit happier, GA and passengers alike.