Friday 29 June 2018

Trains v Buses - They Both Have Their Place

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen a lively discussion between the rail industry and their bus counterparts. It started as a debate on the merits of the Cambridge Busway, and escalated from there. I simply cannot understand why, so it seemed good material for a post.

When I was 13 I went through a period of truancy. I would get the bus - fleet number duly noted - from my school to a fake dental appointment, which in reality meant a couple of hours at Chatham Rail Station trainspotting. Never felt as free in my life! I have used, worked on, written about, and enthused on both modes all my life. Both have delighted me, frustrated me, excited me, and yes let me down badly too. But that doesn't negate in anyway how vital both system are in today's world.

Let's start with the Cambridge Busway. In an ideal world the rail line from St Ives to Cambridge would never have been shut. But it was. So some bright spark had the idea that rather than pay the huge cost of re-opening it as a railway, why not modify it for guided buses, building two large Park and Ride sites on the route as well as serving former stations. Then it can branch off into the new Science Park before joining existing roads into the City Centre. Oh and a cycle path/walkway running adjacent to the line to get bikes and pedestrians away from the roads too. Better than having a dormant, decaying disused rail line. If maintenance needs to be carried out on the busway you don't need a bus replacement bus service either!

Unfortunately, this being England nothing goes to plan or budget and the busway was the same. Beset with problems it opened late and way over budget. But that was not the fault of the concept, or the bus industry. When I've been on it the buses have been very well patronised, the journey fantastic and not once have I been delayed by a signal or points failure, trespass incident, or roads buckling in the heat. Had the construction been done properly it would be deemed a huge success. Yes, the buses get stuck in traffic in the City Centre. but there's not too much can be done about that as Cambridge is full of historic buildings. Ban all cars is one solution but you'll never find a Council brave enough to do that.

The rail side of the argument contest that a train/light rail system would have been better. Really? In a City as tight as Cambridge? Would the train service have served the Science Park? That Science Park has expanded so greatly since the Busway opened it actually spawned the new Cambridge North station. Cambridge Station is nowhere near the City Centre so the Busway has brought the City Centre to more people, and more quickly too. Bottom line is if the railway had been successful it wouldn't have been closed in the first place so why was it?

The discussion moved on from there to which mode is responsible for taking more cars off the road. Well first of all hands up all those who live within walking distance of a rail station? Thought so, so how do you get to your station? Drive? Catch the bus? Cycle? Now how many live within walking distance of a bus stop? You're not all like me in the middle of nowhere! In Asford, in Kent, they thought of this, and targeted some of the big estates with frequent minibuses to and from the station, and the shops. It has proved such a success that they have had to increase the size of the vehicles. In Yorkshire the 36 between Leeds and Ripon via Harrogate has also been a triumph. Luxury seating, free wifi/usb charging and reasonable fares has seen many new customers. The same applies to the Cityzap between Leeds and York. I myself wrote a timetable for my local (5 miles away) route so it connected at Saxmundham better for the trains. Since it was implemented patronage of the route has increased and more are using it to get to the station.

Bus operators - some faster than others - are beginning to realise that you can't just expect new passengers to turn up, and that you have to give them a reason to leave the cars, that they pay through the nose to keep on the road, at home. So if you're going to sit in traffic you may as well sit in a leather seat, logged online and letting someone else do the swearing.

One other thing - from January 1st 2017 all buses had to have disabled access. Thousands of perfectly good buses were scrapped prematurely. Now you won't find a bus without a ramp or wheelchair space.  On the other hand some parts of the rail network have been going out of their way to make travel for the disabled as difficult as possible. Taking staff off trains, making wheelchair users book in advance, then losing the booking, stranding people on trains because of a communication cock up, the list goes on.

Trains are going backwards. New trains have hard seats, wifi you still have to pay for in some cases, absurdly complicated fares, fewer staff on board, and although they are great when everything is running smoothly, more often than not these days they don't, so you are delayed anyway. Since May 20th in some areas you are lucky to get a train at all, and don't know from day to day what services are running. I think right now we are seeing the benefit of the London congestion charge, as I'm sure that's deterring more people from turning back to their cars.

Now I can already feel the rail supporters puffing themselves up and berating Government interference in rail franchises. Rightly so. Bus operators are free to choose their vehicles, decide on the specifications, put decent seating in, choose which routes to run and when, and basically have a free hand. Which is ok to a point. That point being services are not protected or guaranteed. So if you are one of few passengers on the last bus home that doesn't matter. If it doesn't make money chances are you'll lose that service. No point getting the bus there if you can't get one back. A lot of people have stopped using buses for that very reason. In most regions now if you don't travel between 7am - 7pm buses are not an option. I just hope that the innovation shown in some areas reaches those parts that need it, and soon.

Rail, on the other hand is an industry that is apparently privatised yet still run by the Government, albeit rather badly. Yes private companies/consortiums operate the trains, but the Government tells them when, where and how, is in control of most fares, dictates the specifications for new trains, which of course are never owned by the operator but leased from rolling stock companies. So really the operators use borrowed trains on tracks they have to pay Network Rail for, who are owned by the Government, running services they are told to by the Government, on timetables written by Network Rail, who are owned by the Government, but get it in the neck when things go wrong - normally from the Government. Then the Minister says he doesn't run the railways.

We need a bit taken from both sides and injected into the other. On the bus side more should be done to protect services. If, for example 6 months notice had to be given to cut a route rather than 8 weeks, it would give more opportunity for communities to get together and ensure patronage went up. Yes it might discourage new routes but what we have still got needs protecting first. Government should ensure evening services are maintained so those using buses can get home, particularly if trains are delayed. No one will get the bus to the station if there's a chance they could be stranded if the last bus has gone before they get there.

The rail industry, while having services protected as now, should be allowed to get on with their job unhindered by government. They should be allowed to decide on the specification of new trains, or to make changes to existing stock, have more control over fares, with again protection in place, and be free to create initiatives to encourage off peak travel.

In short neither industry is perfect. I personally feel rail operators and bus operators should work far more closely together to encourage passenger growth, and to get rail passengers to the station including using Park and Ride sites out of town to keep cars away from town centres. Discounted rail tickets for bus passengers and vice versa. Public transport that works together for the benefit of each other, and most importantly the passenger. Without passengers the industry is nothing, but increasingly on rail passengers are seen as an inconvenience. Until the public transport industry starts being run for the passenger again, as some bus operators have realised, you can argue as much as you want, but neither rail or bus can really gloat too much right now. Both modes are equally important, but both modes have much room for improvement. It is up to us industry commentators on both sides of the fence that really shouldn't be there to take the blinkers off, not be afraid to speak the truth, and say things for what they are, not we would like to perceive them to be.

Thursday 28 June 2018

37409 Makes Short Set Debut

We always hoped it might happen. We never really thought it might happen, but today it did happen. Two gleaming large BR logo Class 37's were on the Greater Anglia Short Set running between Norwich and Lowestoft/Great Yarmouth. I was out early to catch the set in numerous locations, starting in Reedham, to see the set pass through on its light journey from the depot to Lowestoft.

37407 leading, the set waits to cross Reedham Swing Bridge
This time next year the semaphore signals will have gone and the new trains will be appearing, but hopefully the short set will still be around. I moved on from Reedham to Cantley - the first time I've been to that station, and I have to say it's a delight. The Station Adopters have done a fantastic job.

The beauty of Cantley Station
Cantley also boasts a crossing at both ends of the platforms, which are longer than most on the route, making photoing easy. It also meant that legally I was able to get a view from track level, which isn't always the case

37409 pulling away from Cantley
Onto the Acle Straight, and rather than my usual bridge view I went for a more side on shot, hoping to get both the logos looking good. Proved difficult!

37407 leading the set towards Yarmouth
Finally I went to one of my favourite locations, Brundall Gardens. The sun was getting strong by ths point, but still got a great view, and sound, of the set as it left the station heading for Norwich.

37409 leading again, heads for Norwich
What a sight. What a sound, what privilege to see these restored locos out in service again. Well done and thank you to everyone who worked so hard to bring them back to life, and to DRS for sending them both to us in East Anglia. We need to make the most of the next year or so, as we'll never see the like again in public service.

Yes of course there's a video!

There haven't been many posts recently. That is due to many reasons. Mainly there really isn't much happening. Basically only Roy and Grahame at East Norfolk Bus Blog are still going, and even they are struggling for material. Absolutely nothing is happening on the bus scene right now in this region. The railways are falling apart in other areas, and I normally report anything interesting in our region. I will also in the next few weeks be restricted in how often I can get out due to rather carelessly writing my car off, so all funds are going towards a replacement.

Thanks for your understanding, most f you at least, and I'll post whenever I can when there is something of interest to post!

Sunday 17 June 2018

Gt Yarmouth Air Show Park and Ride (South)

(Oh and some trains)

Due to being involved in an RTA Friday night which wrecked my beloved car, though thankfully not me (sorry, Anon, I'll try harder next time) I was unable to attend the Yarmouth Air Show so I'm grateful to Tim for doing the tedious stuff for me. Oh and also for doing the post!! Cheers buddy!

This weekend just gone was the inaugural air show for Yarmouth. It was expected to draw a lot of people and for this a bold transport plan involving up to 100 buses was devised. There were 2 parks North and South with the South being in Gorleston with the route via Beccles Rd. So the intrepid reporter stood by a roundabout to capture as many buses as he could.(400 odd snaps later....). First Eastern Counties were in abundance as the whole thing was masterminded by Mr Chris Speed and his team in a secret location (near the Fish and Grill any free chips ???) and by all accounts it was a successful operation.

Centre of Operations. Pics (c) Chris Speed
The additional buses were provided by Konect, Coach Services of Thetford, Mulleys of Ixworth, Ipswich Buses, Dolphin Travel, Beestons of Hadleigh, Borderbus of Beccles and Belle Coaches.

The " Beast". First time I have seen a bendybus in Yarmouth!

 Also you have heard of the Lone meet "The Lone Ambassador"
Yes Robert was the only one I saw and was chuffed I got a snap of him.

Sunday I turned my attention to the rails. To also cater for the expected influx Greater Anglia laid on special Loco hauled trains with the hire of 4 Class 68's and using their own full Intercity sets of coaches running non stop Norwich to Yarmouth and back. By what I saw they had plenty of room to get people on despite a fair few enthusiasts who wanted to ride and see the loco's. This all ran smoothly too which bodes well for the next time Yarmouth decides to put on a show. 

This is what a full rake with 2 loco's looks like at Yarmouth evoking memories of the summer Saturdays of the boom time when Yarmouth was a big destination from all over the country.(And it was a long old walk!!)

In a rare moment (Thanks Mr Smith ) the 2 sets were together for 5 minutes only. Probably the last time this may happen with the new trains due in 2019. Fingers crossed for another air show next year.
And this is what it was all about for me. The sight and sound of the BBMF Lancaster over Gorleston.

Monday 4 June 2018


there is a known issue at Blogger that is stopping email notifications of comments which means I'm not receiving them to approve and publish. To that end I have decided to lift moderation restrictions until the fault is fixed. If you have submitted a comment in the last few days can I ask you re-submit it and it will be posted automatically. Obviously there will be some who take advantage of that but I'll delete offensive comments as soon as I see them. Thanks.

Sunday 3 June 2018

Bus Franchising, The Debate Continues

There is an article in a Cambridge Newspaper that has caught the interest of those in the bus industry. Written by Andy Campbell, MD of Stagecoach East, it is an argument against bus franchising and why it wouldn't be financially sustainable. You can read the article here. If I was a shareholder of one of the big operators, or a top bus manager on a six figure salary I would be keeping a copy of that article in my wallet, to glance at occasionally. But I'm not a shareholder of one of the major operators, or a top manager earning a six figure salary. I'm a passenger. I set up this blog to give passengers a voice. Not managers or ex managers, very few of whom use buses, but passengers. As a passenger that article fills me with dread.

One paragraph caught my eye in particular. It was this one;

We want to provide an excellent community service but, as a commercial operation, we simply can’t fund unprofitable routes over the longer term. Doing this would put any business at risk. It would jeopardise the salaries that our drivers, mechanics and office staff, and their families, rely on.

The irony that this was the MD of Stagecoach East, the same Stagecoach East that has just pulled out of Norfolk, rendering drivers, mechanics and office staff jobless was not lost on me. But it paints a bigger picture. What it is saying is if your service has been cut over recent years don't expect it back because we won't consider operating routes that are currently loss making, or even try to turn them around. That is rather depressing if you are a passenger on a low income who can't afford taxis everywhere.

So it won't come as a surprise to you when I say I'm more in favour of franchising than Mr Campbell. Where I do agree with him, though, is that franchising alone is not the answer, but I really believe it's part of the answer. So why am I in favour of franchising? We need to turn the clock back.

When I was a boy I would spend evenings poring over timetables planning days out on the buses. I left Mum an itinerary of my planned movements with the promise to let her know via phone box if anything altered. So let's take one of those days. I would buy an Explorer ticket, which covered all operators in Kent and Sussex, get the first bus out of my village in Kent, around 7am to Chatham, then go to Maidstone - Faversham - Canterbury - Dover - Hastings - Maidstone - Chatham. I'd get home around 10pm having had a great day, mainly on Bristol VR's. So - can that day still be achieved today? The Explorer ticket still exists, but do the bus services. Let's see, I assure you I'm looking the services up as I type.

Well the first bus out my village is roughly the same time at 0639, getting me to Chatham at 0655. There is an 0710 service 101 to Maidstone, arriving 0740, which I'll admit is a lot quicker than when I was a boy, helped by road improvements especially getting into Maidstone (bait set). Now for the 333 to Faversham. Ahhh looks like breakfast in Maidstone as no 333 until 0920. Never mind, we get to Faversham at 1024. An 1106 3X whisks me to Canterbury for 1130, again faster than the old days.

Another improvement is the bus service between Canterbury and Dover, certainly day times. A 20 min frequency operates on the 15 and I hop on the 1152 and I'm in Dover at 1227. This is where it might get interesting. I used to love the 550, which ran along the coast from Dover to Hastings via Folkestone, New Romney and Rye. Can I still do it?

It seems I can. The 102 at 1320, so lunch in Dover, takes me to Rye for 1528, where I need to change buses onto the 100 at 1542 to arrive in Hastings at 1623. Very good, to be honest I wasn't expecting that. Now to get back to Maidstone. Obviously I want some time in Hastings so don't want a bus immediately. There is a 1753 or 1848 from Hastings to Hawkhurst. I'd prefer the 1848 if in Summer so let's try that one - will there be a connection at Hawkhurst for Maidstone? The 1848 arrives in Hawkhurst at 1938 and the bus to Maidstone leaves at...2200. Ahh, not so good. Let's check the 1753 from Hastings, which arrives in Hawkhurst at 1852. The bus to Maidstone leaves at...2200.

The Hastings - Maidstone route 5 used to be a direct route. Then Stagecoach bought Hastings & District, and Arriva bought Maidstone & District so of course the route was split. Now the separate parts don't connect with each other. Where have I heard that recently. Stay in Hastings longer I hear you say - good idea - I'll just check when the last bus to Hawkhurst is. Ahhh, it is the 1848 so like it or not I'm stuck in Hawkhurst for 2 and a half hours, and if you've ever been to Hawkhurst you'll know that is a very, very long time!

So eventually I'm on the 2200 to Maidstone arriving at 2255. There used to be a 2315 to Chatham - is there still - yes, 2310 now but still connects - I'm in Chatham at 2334 - can I still get home? So near yet so far - alas I miss the last bus back to my village by 8 mins. Close but no cigar, and that wait in Hawkhurst would put me off that route. There used to be an alternative route back to Maidstone via Tenterden but sadly the timetable has just been slashed and the last Hastings - Tenterden service now leaves at 1625.

So what did that exercise show. Well, if I'm honest I'm surprised I got as far as I did, and it demonstrates that bus services in some areas are a lot healthier than others. Certainly Stagecoach Southeast seem to be doing their best to maintain services, and they should be congratulated for that, although it must be said I only used routes on A roads linking big towns. The moment I went into the country, although still on an A road I had a 150 min wait. But, it demonstrates that some areas would benefit from franchising more than others. It really says something for the operators, and particularly Kent County Council, that the village I grew up in still has a bus out of it at 0639, and a bus back from town at 2324. That's way later than the last train.

So, on the whole Kent is doing ok. They have an integrated ticket if you need to use more than one operator, and with decent marketing buses aren't in too bad a state down there. Obviously there is always room for improvement, which I'll come to later.

However, Kent is vastly different to Suffolk and Norfolk. Look at those journey times on my trip. Only one of them is more than an hour. It takes an hour and twenty to get from Halesworth to Norwich to start my day, not to mention the 6 mile drive from my village to Halesworth. I would love to see Suffolk and Norfolk timetables from 40 years or so ago to see what I could have done then that I can't do now.

Bus services in Norfolk and Suffolk are in a shocking state at the moment. Don't get me wrong I'm not blaming the operators, well not too much anyway. The operators do not get the support from the councils Kent does, for example. Both Norwich and Ipswich are plagued with never ending roadworks, which seem to improve nothing, making sticking to a timetable impossible. Temporary traffic lights are placed to guard sites the size of a small pot plant with nobody working there anyway. Some routes have 3 operators on them, others none. The passenger is being fleeced to a hefty degree, and no one but no one seems to give a damn, and when someone dares complain they are shouted down.

So would franchising help East Anglia? Hell yes! It is inconceivable that the Council can be expected to subsidise on the scale needed to resurrect the rural bus market without getting some help, and that help would come from the profit making services. If there were more buses going to more places more often people would use them if the price was right. But what would be the benefits of franchising in this area?

Firstly integrated ticketing. Sure it's fine if you have a Concessionary pass - you can jump from operator to operator at will. If you're paying though you have to pay separately for each journey if changing operators. That's expensive and no incentive to use the bus if you have to use more than one operator.

Secondly if services were governed from one place you wouldn't have the ridiculous situation we have now, where operators cannot talk to each other and co-ordinate times for the benefit of passengers. One route, one operator, and where routes merge all tickets accepted on all buses.

Thirdly buses would be run at times to suit passengers not operators. A particular bug bear of mine is services that don't run schooldays because the bus is being used on a school run. There are plenty of services around where the afternoon frequency is less than the morning, due to buses being taken off service work. Again, that is not going to encourage fare payers to use the bus. Franchising would allow public and school buses to be kept separate, so passengers had more choice.

Most services outside the big towns are finished by 7pm. Last bus from Norwich to Halesworth is 1815. Last bus out of Southwold, if you want a day there is before 1800. Where is the incentive for people to use the bus to go to work if they can't stay for a drink with their mates after work on a Friday because they'll miss the last bus if they do? Or have to be out of a seaside resort while it's still red hot? Later buses would solve that problem. When I moved to Wickham Market 10 years ago the biggest box ticked for me was the 2255 bus from Ipswich 7 days a week. I was on it Wednesdays and Sundays, after playing pool for a pub in Ipswich. It was the first bus to go in the 2010 cuts.

They are just a few reasons why franchising would work here, if, and only if the marketing was done properly to encourage bus use. But as I indicated earlier there are other ways which should be tried out.

An idea I've had for sometime now is for bus services to be sponsored by corporate business. After all they sponsor everything from international cricket to brass bands, so why not bus services. Supposing the evening buses from Norwich to Watton, for example, were sponsored by Barclays. Good publicity for them - giving something back to the community - an all over wrap on a bus for their troubles. How about the Government recognising this as a good idea taking heat off councils and giving the businesses a tax break against the money they sponsor services with? Is that such a daft idea? How about town or city traders clubbing together to sponsor the last couple of buses out of town on a Friday and Saturday night, with the council covering the rest of the week. It irks me that there are far later buses on the Outer Hebrides than there are in the majority of East Anglia.

But above all the bus needs to be more attractive. Value for money, frequency, convenience and comfort are all very well, and operators like Transdev have transformed bus travel in the last couple of years. But despite all that it's not going to persuade those who have spent 25K on a new car, or those who have just renewed their insurance, tax and MOT to leave them on the drive and get a bus.

Therefore it needs some real thinking outside the box so people don't feel almost guilty for leaving the car at home. First of all abolish road tax and put it on fuel duty - those who use the roads most pay the most - that's only fare. Cap insurance rates to make car ownership a lot cheaper but bung 10p a litre on fuel to make driving it more expensive. Make driving in towns and cities expensive to make buses the cheaper option through parking tarrifs and congestion charges. More bus lanes, priority traffic lights, roadworks on bus routes only carried out at night unless unavoidable, park and ride sites at motorway junctions.  But, I hear screams of protest, what if you live nowhere near a bus route even after all the improvements? Quite simple. With modern technology councils will be able to tell who lives more than half a mile from a bus route and they would be exempt from the extra fuel prices. That would include places of work, which if they were more than half a mile from a bus route probably wouldn't be in places causing too much congestion anyway. Of course others, including bus drivers, emergency vehicles etc would also be exempt. Please don't write in citing all those who should also be exempt - it's a concept!

All that, with bus services planned around what the customer needs, rather than what would create the greatest profit, and we might still have something to pass down to future generations.

I expect the usual suspects to come out saying I'm in fantasy land, or just moaning again but something needs to be done, and done soon. The current system isn't working, and where areas like Kent are not in as much trouble as areas like East Anglia, there is nowhere that doesn't need improvement. Trouble is - is there the will to make it happen. I doubt from the top of the bus industry, because they quite like their salaries, as I would in their position, so it's up to others to make the noise.