Friday, 23 April 2021

The Big Cat That's Got The Cream

 On Monday I had my first proper day out since November, and ventured up to North Norfolk to sample the two newest double decker buses in East Anglia. Kings Lynn based Lynx (it has only just dawned on me how clever that name is) have splashed out on two ADL E400MMC's for their flagship Coastliner route between Kings Lynn and Fakenham. Always happy to publicise new vehicles in our area, with the exception of Streetlites, I decided to go and try them out. With help from Lynx driver and good friend Sam Larke - yes, he who used to make my life a misery when running Norwich Buses blog - I was able to plan a return trip to Hunstanton which would enable me to travel on both of the new buses. Indeed, I had a good natter with Sam before nipping up to the car park roof at Kings Lynn bus station to take a few videos, including Sam leaving on his own departure to Hunstanton. He's turned out ok!

By this time the first of the new deckers had arrived, taking a break before following Sam an hour behind. I have to say it looks superb. 

So I boarded, and was greeted with that lovely new smell. The interior is good, with a smart moquette and an attractive and very comfortable seat design. Luggage rack downstairs and tables upstairs. USB and wireless charging is available with bell pushes on the rear of every seat.

Off we went, and I was hoping ADL had improved the ride of the E400 as much as they have the E200. It was ok - quiet, smooth and little body noise, although it being only their 3rd day in services there shouldn't have been. However, it didn't feel that solid and I finally thought of the right analogy for riding a new E400MMC. It's like watching your child perform. You know how much effort has gone in to the preparations, be it practice, rehearsal, training etc. The costume/outfit/strip is pristine, no other child looks better than yours yet you watch them with your stomach tied in knots, knowing that everything could fall apart at any moment - the wrong note, forgotten line, open goal missed, the fall off the beam etc and you'll end up mopping up a tearful and distraught child. I had that feeling on Monday. The presentation is superb, both inside and out. Everything is pleasing on the eye, yet you have that sickly feeling inside that one large pothole and everything will start falling apart and rattling like a 1930's football crowd. That is a shame, but I never had that feeling with Olympians, and I don't with Metrodeckers or BCI's. It is so frustrating that 95% of the bus is excellent, yet that missing 5% makes all the difference - the 'that'll do' attitude. I was talking to a manager the other day who was totally exasperated that the new MMC he took out for a test run had a cab door that rattled. What I really can't understand is how ADL seem ok with this and keep churning them out. Where's their pride in their product?

Anyhow I'll go back in a few months and hope to be proved wrong - at least the roads in North Norfolk are better than most. If I was being cynical I'd say it was due to the proximity to Sandringham but surely not! 

Sam had told me if everything was running to time I'd get the chance to film the two new buses together at the soon to be demolished Hunstanton bus station, and he was right. Never mind my niggles about the ride, they look magnificent. By time you read this both should have their vinyls applied so to get the all red one before vinyls was good.

A word about the operator. Lynx are arguably the best operator for their size in East Anglia. Their buses, and staff, are always immaculately turned out, their network of routes is good, their fleet is good, and I would spend far more time over there if it wasn't for one thing. Even in my boyhood I wouldn't travel on routes operated by single deckers for fun, unless it was vital to link up with another route. If there was a way of getting where I wanted by double decker that is how I would go. It still is. Unless it's to review a new vehicle or unavoidable I don't like travelling by single decker - there are only a couple of decent seats on a single decker and they get taken quickly. One of the joys of double deckers is you see things you never see in a car, or single decker! The journey to Hunstanton and back on Monday was made so much more enjoyable because of the views - some of them stunning - from the top deck. I'll be back to do the full run to Fakenham, but only on a double decker, rattles or not! Nothing wrong with Tempos for commuting or shopping purposes, but for fun you cannot beat a top deck.

I also took the opportunity to see how the E400 Citys on First's Excel route were fearing, 14 months after their introduction. Well, the body noise was roughly what I expected, although there seemed to be a lot more coming up from the lower deck than there was on top. The CIS screens weren't working, neither was the WiFi, and the next stop announcement was spasmodic to say the least. The seats don't feel nearly as comfortable as they look, yet from the outside the buses still look seriously eye catching - an ADL trait!

Then to finish the day I travelled to Beccles on one of the predecessors of the E400 City on the Excel route, that are now plying their trade on the Coastlink X1/X2/22 services. Again they look great, but the buses are really showing their age (all of 8 years) and 33814 was drowning out its own engine in body noise. But it was a double decker, and on a glorious day like Monday, sometimes the wonder of the views can drown out even ADL rattles!

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

National Bus Strategy - My Thoughts

 Hi everyone! Yes, still here, just had precious little to write about over the last 6 months. Not being allowed on public transport has its disadvantages when it's what you write about, and since everything is currently on hold until things pick up again, like everyone else I'm in a state of limbo. 

However, yesterday the long awaited National Bus Strategy was published by Her Majesty's Government, setting out how buses are going to recover, expand and progress over the coming years. You can download the document by clicking here.

Now you'll have to forgive me for being a tad sceptical about the whole thing - after all it's designed and published by the same people who have wielded the axe on thousands of bus services over the last decade and more, not to mention promised us 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses, 20,000 more police, no hard borders, the elderly not having to sell their homes to cover care costs and so much more. Even the title of the strategy - Bus Back Better - made me wonder what that exactly means, it's not even proper english! 

It starts by proclaiming how wonderful and important bus services are, how vital to rural communities and how buses must be instrumental in modal shift from cars. Stopped laughing yet? It goes on to say how Local Transport Authorities (you know - the ones starved of cash for years) need to form partnerships with operators to develop a bus network that everyone will not only want to use, but will also be so convenient they'll be able to use it for just about anything, from getting to and from work, to going out weekends and evenings. Night buses in towns, Sunday and evening services in rural locations connecting with trains to get people home. Through ticketing, multi-operator ticketing, flat fares, capped fares, cameras at bus stops for security, timetables and info at every bus stop (except those on "turn up and go" routes that will be so frequent "passengers won't need timetables", looking forward to those springing up in Suffolk), more bus lanes and priority systems, even more guided busways (sorry, Tim).

There's more - all competing operators on the same route must have the same route number and include all other operators in the timetable. Lord knows how that would affect routes like Borderbus. 146, that competes with First's 99 for a third of the route and the X2/X22 for the other two thirds. Of course it doesn't say who would have to change their route number - it seems the new LTA/Operator partnership would have to sort it out themselves.

And sort it out they must, because without a partnership there won't be any money. So any Council who doesn't form one of these partnerships will not be eligible for any of the £3b allocated to the project. That is rather scary, as there are some councils who see buses as way down the list of priorities. 

Other jewels in the crown are 4,000 carbon neutral buses, major trunk routes with feeder services linking communities to them - sure I've mentioned that before - more publicity for tourist routes and so on. All sounds wonderful, but let's take a look at what wasn't mentioned. 

Ask any operator, and they will tell you the most expensive part of their operation is the staff, particularly drivers. Not just wages, but uniforms, pensions, NI contributions, CPC renewals, H&S courses etc. There is also a national shortage of bus drivers. Nowhere in the document is driver recruitment mentioned. On top of that, outside of the major towns shiftwork on buses has all but died. Services operate 7 - 7 and so do most of the drivers. Bringing back evening and Sunday buses will necessitate a huge increase in the number of drivers, who will all need training etc. Will the cost of that be included in the £3b? DRT is mooted for rural locations, especially to connect with trains - looking forward to a driver being paid to sit in a minibus outside Saxmundham station to connect with the last train on a Sunday! Yes, that's the same DRT that has been tried and failed in many areas, and here in Suffolk was cut back to the point of being useless 4 years ago. 

There was also no mention of how, exactly, car drivers were to be lured from their cars onto buses apart from pretty buses with usb charging and comfortable seating, although at least that's an improvement on new trains. So how are you going to encourage Mrs Smith to leave her car at home on a freezing February morning and walk half a mile to the nearest bus stop? Not an easy task when Mrs Smith forks out £1200 a year on car insurance, quite possibly £160+ a year on excise duty, MOT and service costs and can go door to door in comfort, warmth, with her favourite music playing. Ironically, you have to start by making running a car cheaper. If you spend that much running a car you're going to use it, and justifiably so. Nothing in the document to tackle that little problem, and there really is no easy solution. But not many people spending that much on a car will want to spend - or be able to afford to spend - hundreds more a year on bus fares. I was looking forward to reading in the document about enterprising schemes such as incentives for employers to cover a percentage of bus fares for employees willing to leave their cars at home. DRT buses serving industrial estates was mentioned - yeah right! Sorry, Jim, we've got an extra couple of users tonight so your journey home will be half hour longer than usual...

When I was growing up going into town for a shopping trip was an exciting event. Big supermarkets were still a thing of the future so grocery shopping was done locally. You went into town for clothes, to go to the bank, buy a record and have lunch in a cafe. You only shopped for as much as you could carry home on the bus. That has all changed so what incentives are there to do your shopping by bus these days? Would it be that difficult for the Government to link up with supermarkets and offer free same day delivery for customers shopping by bus? Iceland (the store) offers a you shop we deliver service so why not the big supermarkets? Many people don't like home delivery because they can't choose products themselves, or especially with the elderly get confused with online ordering. Get the bus to the supermarket, shop at your leisure, have a coffee, get the bus home and we'll deliver your shopping to you. Sounds good doesn't it. 

I was also looking forward to seeing how LTA's would engage with their communities to encourage growth of bus ridership. Nothing. Not a thing. Is it rocket science to have a competition among local primary schools to design the bus livery for the route serving them? After all they are the customers of the future - get them involved with their bus service early on and they'll feel part of it - something that the savvi operators have already sussed and are doing. If a community feels something belongs to them they will support it, be it a shop, village hall, school or bus service. Think I've mentioned that before too!

So all in all I'm not brimming with excitement. It seems they want an Oyster style system everywhere without the franchising which is crucial to Oyster's operation. Mini oysters, covering local areas, but who will set the boundaries. Having said that, they are right in saying contactless will soon replace smartcards, so seamless boundaries could be possible, but still tough if you live close to a boundary and live in one area but work in another.

To achieve what is set out in the strategy will cost far, far more than the £3b allocated in infrastructure changes alone, before the cost of recruitment, new vehicles, marketing etc is taken into account - and who will be responsible for marketing/bus stop info etc? The operator, in which case on a shared route who is responsible, and what if the other operator suddenly changes times, or the LTA, in which case which budget will it come out of? 

To conclude here is a very local example of what needs to change if public transport use is going to not only return to pre Covid levels, but exceed them. My nearest biggish town is Lowestoft. It costs around 7 quid in petrol to get there and back, If I had a partner and they came with me it would still cost around 7 quid. If we went by public transport, well there's no bus to the station and DRT is no use here now, so that's £15 for a taxi. A return from Darsham to Lowestoft is £11.20, if we want to go to Aldi or Morrison's that's another £3 return on the bus, and we can only shop what we can carry. Train back to Darsham then another taxi home - total cost for me alone £44.20, for two of us £58.40. Compared to £7 quid in the car which I've already paid tax, insurance and maintenance costs on, not to mention the cost of buying the car in the first place. 

It isn't a case of just putting pretty buses on the road, it's changing the way society thinks, and there is nothing to tackle that in the strategy. The lack of response yesterday from the bus industry was noticeable, and even those that did respond were predictable and used the same language they would for any announcement promising £3b for the industry. 

That's enough from me, stay safe, hopefully we can all start using public transport again soon, and that in 5 years time I can look at this post and say wow I got that wrong!

Bus Back Better - someone was paid to come up with that!

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Around The World For 6 Miles

 Yesterday, 7th September, Southeastern introduced more services to their post Covid-19 timetable. As I knew I was going to spend the week checking Mum's house hadn't fallen down (originally had a visit to see her booked but a positive test at her home put pay to that) and it being my old conducting ground I looked at what had changed. Quite a bit, as it happens, but my eye was attracted to something strange on the Chatham Main Line.

20 years ago it was simple - 2 fast trains from London Victoria to Faversham calling at Bromley South, the Medway Towns and Sittingbourne which split, the front half continuing to Ramsgate, the rear to Dover Priory, one semi fast an hour, one stopper. Running with them was a half hourly stopping service from Victoria to Faversham. It was a simple to follow system. Then, in 2010 HS1 opened to domestic trains and Southeastern were told in no uncertain terms to make sure passengers switched to it, paying the enhanced fares, as the line had to be paid for. That meant slowing down the fast trains on the Chatham and Tonbridge lines. The fast trains via Chatham now stopped at Newington or Teynham, and at Meopham and Longfield. The Faversham stoppers to London were reduced to one an hour and started and terminated at Gillingham. On the Tonbridge Line fast services between Ashford and Tonbridge were scrapped with all trains becoming stoppers. The message was obvious - if you want to get to London quick use HS1 but it will cost you.

However, if travelling from Victoria to Dover, if you caught the faster train it still wasn't bad - just over 90 mins for less in a more comfortable train. That has now been well and truly demolished, with both the "fast" and "stopping" services taking the same time to get from Victoria to Dover ie !h58m for the what used to be fast service, and 1h57m for what used to be the stopping service. The fastest HS1 journey from St Pancras to Dover takes !h02m. To achieve this Southeastern have introduced a what can only be described as a bizarre stopping pattern, especially between Rochester and Bromley South. Let's take a closer look.

During peak hours its very much as you were - semi fast trains stopping at Meopham, Longfield, Bromley S and Victoria. However, after 0930 something strange happens. The semi fast trains continue as normal but the stopping services OMIT Meopham and Longfield.

So that begged the question if you want to travel from Sole St, Farningham Rd, Swanley or St Mary Cray to Meopham and Longfield, and vice versa how do you do it? As Sole St is the nearest station on the Chatham Line to Mum's place I went out this morning to find out. 

There's a lovely park near Sole St station which holds many happy memories for me, but it must be said the station wasn't at it's most lovely today. Lots of signs telling you to pay for your parking but no machine to pay at, the ticket machine was stuck on the final screen for the previous customer and the shelter strewn with rubbish. The timetable on display was also woefully out of date - indeed advertised trains stopping at Longfield that no longer did...

As you can see I had plenty of time to wait for the 1101 so decided to go the other way to Rochester, and double back to Longfield from there. Remember this should be a 7 minute journey! I caught the 1031 from Sole St to Rochester, which was a 6 car Class 465. At Rochester I was finally able to buy my ticket, and ask for a few clarifications. 

Take a note of the cost of the ticket - it becomes relevant later. I was pleasantly surprised that the ticket clerk was aware of the new stopping patterns and could answer my questions without doubting my sanity or honesty. I had 25 mins to wait at Rochester before the train to Longfield arrived. I still think the Southeastern Electrostars are the most comfortable on the network.

So I had arrived at Longfield. Immediately a train hurtled through - next stop Sole St, which was rather ironic. My outbound journey had taken 51 minutes instead of 7. 

To be fair there isn't too much to catch the eye at Longfield, a parade of shops with a newsagent, cafe, fish & chip shop, hairdressers but also a Waitrose, which would be reason enough for those without a car in the likes of Sole St to want to go there. Buses go past the station, such as this rather smart Go-Coach Mercedes minibus, but there are no timetables - indeed the sign on the post directs you to the new Arriva app, which has come in for a great panning this week, not least from Roger French, busandtrainuser, who absolutely slated it!

No sign of a Go-coach timetable at all. So that was Longfield, now to get back but I had a cunning plan. I caught the 1150 from Longfield to Bromley South, which gave me a rather tight 3 minutes to get the train back to Sole St. It was 4 minutes late. Normally that would have made me rather cross, but I had already decided to lunch in Bromley, having checked with the ticket clerk I could legally leave the station. He confirmed as I had no choice but to be there indeed I could. so I did, returning an hour later to catch the 1305 back to Sole St. If you make the connection the return journey via Bromley takes 41 minutes. If not it's 1hr41m, which is a lot for a journey that should take 7 minutes! If you return via Rochester it will take a minimum of 52 mins as the train from Longfield conveniently gets into Rochester a minute after the train to Sole St has left. Get the wrong train from Longfield and you have an hour there. Rochester station in bad weather is not a hospitable place. It also means if you travel from Sole St you can legitimately travel via Bromley, do your shopping, have lunch and do it for £4.20 instead of £8.90. 

Yes, the machine was working again when I got back but the rubbish was still there.

To conclude, here is the off peak stopping pattern from London to the Kent coast via Faversham. It clearly favours the High Speed services.

When we are trying to encourage people back onto the railway surely slowing services down, forcing people to pay more, leaving out of date misleading timetables on display and turning 7 minute journeys into 90 min marathons is not the way to do it. I suggest a rethink is needed. Incidentally on Saturdays and Sundays all stopping services call at Meopham and Longfield, just to confuse everyone even more!

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

New Route! New Operator! New Bus! New Hope?

 Honestly! Bus news is like buses - nothing for months then a day full of it! I haven't had the chance to write a post like this for yonks so here goes!

Today saw the launch among much pomp and ceremony, well, a few people, of Borderbus' new route 522, from Peasenhall/Saxmundham - Leiston/Aldeburgh. You will remember I posted about this new route a couple of months ago. Unfortunately the people at Suffolk County Council responsible for publicising this sort of thing failed miserably in this case, only publishing the timetable on Friday afternoon, so as the enthusiast population of Peasenhall isn't that great precious few people knew about it. That will change.

Another spanner in the works saw a road closure in Saxmundham put pay to the decker that will be operating the route being used, as the diversion was full of low trees. So a single decker was used, which didn't seem to take anything away from proceedings, despite the 146 branding. I asked the parish historian when the last time a bus with a proper destination blind/screen served Peasenhall - which is on an A road so hardly in the outback - and he couldn't remember! If anyone can please let me know! I hope the route is successful - the parish council are hoping more of the village can be served, but the road layout may preclude that as being possible for a decker. It'll be tight! Anyhow I wish the route well - I'll certainly be using it - although with the Winter approaching it maybe next year before we can see just how popular it will be.

Borderbus 107 arrives at Peasenhall

Attracting attention from the locals!

Next it was off to Saxtead to capture Ipswich Buses first day operating the 118/119 from Framlingham to Ipswich, replacing Galloway. A route that has done well to survive recent culls I hope IB taking over will give the route a new lease of life. Solo 241 operated the 1250 out of Fram, albeit a few mins late.

Ipswich Solo 241 on the 119 to Ipswich at Saxtead Green

Those two events I knew were happening today. What I hadn't expected was Borderbus supremo Andrew Pursey telling me of fleet news at the Beccles firm, including a new arrival, brand new in fact this afternoon. That meant a trip over there to see what was going on. First of all the decker that was meant to be on the 522 today - former Ipswich Buses 46 - is going to be joined by her sister 47 in a few weeks. To tide the gap Borderbus have borrowed former Metroline E400 TE929 LK58 KGN which I understand will only be used on school journeys. Apparently it was only withdrawn from London duties on Saturday.

TE929 at Borderbus' yard

So to the new arrival. Over the pit having its initial examination was a spotless, brand new, 367 miles on the clock Enviro 200 MMC. I'll be honest - I wasn't overwhelmed with excitement. I mean it's not as though it was the first electric vehicle North East of London, not even a hybrid. No mod cons like USB chargers or fancy floor lighting, just a bog standard E200 MMC and I know what they're like - and I don't like. So I accepted a seat on the test run with the usual resignation, especially when I sat on the seats and found the lumber support quite uncomfortable - backed up by a second opinion. However, I was in for a surprise.


From first movement I could feel something different about it, and then I realised what it was - this MMC comes with suspension. I mean real suspension, not the rock hard ADL suspension we're all used to, and it transforms the ride. As a result there is less body noise, as predicted some years ago it seems. But there is more. The brake tests were savage, and the acceleration is very impressive, not something normally associated with E200's, and as for the top speed, well suffice to say it surprised all of us but I've promised not to say so the drivers won't try to beat it! 

When we got back Dave Marshall, the Chief Wizard at Borderbus showed me the difference between the suspension on the MMC compared to the older models. To put it in terms I understand myself they've basically done away with the heavy, unyielding springs that gave such a rough ride, and doubled the number of airbags. It will be really interesting to see if that keeps body noise down for longer. It's at Borderbus for at least a couple of months so we'll get to find out. My thanks to Andrew, Dave, Colin and the rest of the Borderbus gang for the invite and ride which I'm fairly sure is my first on a brand new vehicle on Sept (or March) 1st!

For the first time in God knows how long today felt almost normal. It's a long time since I've been in a pit looking at the underside of a bus let alone seeing a new service launched, or something as simple as a new operator taking over a route. Obviously liking a bus from ADL was far from normal but it will be great if that particular tide has turned. It's good to see a local operator expanding their fleet and looking to the future when there is so much negativity floating about and it raises hope that the phoenix may be pruning its feathers, and bus use will start increasing again. It won't happen overnight, and operators may have to adapt to new working practices but today has produced a glimmer of hope, hope that has been lacking for most of the year. To paraphrase Basil Fawlty; "Ah normal - yes I remember that"!

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Stonehaven: So Much Bullshit

On Wednesday 12th August, at 0938, in Carmont, Aberdeenshire, tragedy struck. A Scotrail IC125 set hit a landslide and derailed. The driver, conductor and a passenger were killed. 

Since then, including in the immediate aftermath, there have been sensationalist and unfounded suggestions and claims as to what happened, and, ludicrously, who was to blame. Examples are "the train was travelling the wrong way", "going too fast", "why hadn't the driver been cautioned", and in today's Telegraph, laughingly "73.2mph is said to be within the limit of 75mph". Is said to be? 

The thing is, this was one of the most easy to explain accidents on the railways I've ever heard about. Within a couple of hours it was obvious to anyone with half an inkling how the railway works what had happened. The train, 1T08, 0638 from Aberdeen to Glasgow, had been halted by the signaller who had received a report from a train travelling in the Down direction, that the Up line was blocked by a landslip. That down train, 2B13 is extremely relevant. Unable to proceed, 1T08 was turned round and sent back to Stonehaven. This meant waiting for a Network Rail engineer to set the crossover points so 1T08 could transfer from the Up line to the Down. Rarely used crossover points are routinely locked and pinned to avoid any accidental movement, which could cause a derailment.

After a delay of 2 hours, 1T08 started back to Stonehaven. It must be noted that not only had 1T08 already passed over this section of track with nothing suspicious to report, but so had 2B13. There was no suggestion of any blockage of the line, so no reason not to travel at line speed, which at this point was 75mph. Tragically though, in the time between 2B13 passing over the site, and 1T08 returning, there had indeed been another landslip, totally unconnected with the one further up the line. The train hit the landslip at 73.2mph, and all vehicles derailed, some hurtling down an embankment.

Then the media vultures arrived, looking for someone to pin the blame on. Never mind the fact 3 people had died, two of them doing a job they loved and were highly experienced at - someone must have cocked up. No they didn't. I'm not going to pre-empt the RAIB report, but from what they have already published it seems evident that the focus of the investigation is not going to be on the actions of the train crew or signaller. Unfortunately it would seem the media vultures, including some, sadly, who work for industry publications, are still hell bent on finding a scapegoat. Others are just plain ignorant as to how the railway works. 

The geology of our planet is constantly on the move. That includes the hardest of substances, of which mountains are proof. Tectonic plates shifting miles under the surface cause the face of the Earth to be forever changing, albeit over millions of years. Extreme weather can exacerbate that process, and the storms the previous night had clearly weakened the landscape. No one was to know or predict the extent. Railway workers have an extraordinary array of skills and talent. Psychic ability, however, is not one of them.

It is an insult to Brett McCullough, the driver, Donald Dinnie, the conductor, and Christopher Stuchbury, the passenger who lost their lives to try and find fault that doesn't exist, blame that is unfounded, and innuendo that causes reputations to be tarnished.

The definition of the word "accident" is thus; "an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury" Source Oxford Languages. I suggest Stonehaven falls directly into that category without touching the sides. This truly was a tragic accident.

Railway workers live by the rule book regardless of their role. I don't know of another industry where that applies to such an extent. Spontaneity has no place on the Railway. That is why I am of the opinion that the final RAIB report will be of far more interest to geologists, and how land surrounding railways can be better monitored, than to railway workers. As for those so called journalists who are still trying to find fault with the train crew or signalers shame on you. You don't deserve to earn a living from what you do. You are an embarrassment to your profession, and cause nothing but misery to those you come into contact with. 

Brett and Donald rest in peace - those who know, know.