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. 

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.