Tuesday 26 February 2019

Borderbus Demonstrator and News.

It's been sometime since Borderbus managed to wrangle a demonstrator, so when they announced yesterday that one was on the way it aroused interest in many quarters. This particular demonstrator turned out to be an extremely eye catching ADL E400MMC. I was out bright and early (for me) to catch a ride on it and see if it managed to impress me anymore than previous MMC's, which have left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

ADL E400MMC demonstrator YX68 UPY in Worlingham
First of all this bus looks stunning inside and out. The MMC has an attractive body (no sniggering at the back) and the interior is up there with the best I've been on. Light and airy thanks to the glass panels in the roof, seats which look comfortable, USB charging, wireless charging if your phone is enabled, tables, air con, even a radio. And those seats on an E400 that are normally rock hard - over the wheel arches and back seats were fully padded too.

Interior shots of the demonstrator
However, then the wheels start turning and the usual frustrations emerge. The suspension is just too hard - Roger French's coffee cup test would fail abysmally - and there is just too much body creaking and rattling. I was told once that was because lighter materials were being used to keep the weight down. Poppycock! The engine is smaller than they were 50 years ago, yet the bus weighs over a tonne heavier than they did 50 years ago when they didn't rattle! The engine, as it happens is extremely impressive - very powerful and gave a decent kick down when needed. The brakes are smooth and even, although that might have been Terry's good driving.

One word about the seats - initially very comfortable after 30 mins or so you begin to notice the lack of lumber support and by time we reached Southwold I could feel my back more than I should have done.

Rear view at Southwold
Now you will know I always ask the driver their views. Today I didn't have to as Terry let me know what he thought of it the second I stepped on board. He loved it! Said it felt like driving a coach, not a bus. The only quibble he had was the cab was a tad cramped and he couldn't fit his bag in it. Other than that he was one very happy bunny. A very considerate bunny too as he made a point of slowing down whenever he saw anyone taking a picture of the demonstrator, and there were a few. Extra useful today as the (very welcome) sun made photography very challenging at times. Terry isn't an enthusiast, but respects those who are, and that is a rare quality these days. Cheers Terry - more than one person asked me to say thanks!

One Terry slowed down for, at Pakefield.
So my verdict? Yet again I've alighted from an ADL demonstrator frustrated that it could, and should be the perfect bus, but just isn't. There is so much potential there if the suspension was softer and the body that bit more robust to get rid of the Poundland type quality noises it emits. I'm going to ride it again this week, then jump on a B9 Gemini 1, which is my benchmark, to get an instant comparison. I think it will confirm my feelings, but if anyone else rides the MMC and has a different interpretation then please share it - I can only say what I think after all!

As I got off the demonstrator I almost literally bumped into Roy Northcott of East Norfolk Bus Blog, who I haven't seen for months. They were flooding the area, as I had passed Graeme Bessey from the same esteemed blog earlier on. A decent natter with Roy ended up with us both driving to Beccles to pay Borderbus a visit as their latest Scania Omniciti decker was being vinyled up, bringing the total number of Scania deckers to 6, and don't be too surprised if that's not the last. YR61 RUY was new to First London before passing to Metroline. I must say they do look good in the Borderbus/Ryan Air livery, as good as anything new on the road.

New to Borderbus Scania Omniciti YR61 RUY
A good natter with the Borderbus crew ensued, including Bernice having a right royal rant about the inconsiderate parking of buses in St Stephen's St - there are times I'm so pleased she's a friend! Anyway in other news Enviro 200 BB11 BUS, which had a smoking time on the A146 a few weeks ago is away for rewiring, and hopefully Scania decker BB53 BUS will be going away to have padding introduced to the seats soon too - the padded seats are proving very popular. Two of the Volvo B7tl Presidents have been withdrawn and are currently donating parts. Roy's blog has details of which ones as I've already forgotten!

The timetable for the new 99A was released yesterday, and it really isn't good news for those on the route used to an hourly service. Just 5 journeys a day will operate each way between Southwold and Bungay, for connections to Norwich, not even guaranteed connections. The former BH272 school service between Blythburgh and Bungay High School has been renumbered 99H and is available for anyone to use now, though who in their right mind would want to is debatable!

No new timetable or operator for the 90 has been announced yet, although it's possible that those Halesworth residents who used to use the old 62 to Beccles but were left stranded when it was removed from the estates might have some good news.

Friday 22 February 2019

The Final Insult

Many areas have suffered badly due to bus cuts in recent years. Many locations have lost their services altogether. But not many towns have suffered more than the Suffolk town of Halesworth. Recent years have seen the link to Lowestoft axed, the Norwich service cut to the bare minimum, the Beccles service greatly reduced and removed from the parts of the town that used it most, and even Demand Responsive operators have greatly reduced their services to the town.

Then, last month, as reported here, Konectbus announced they were withdrawing the 88/87 Norwich - Bungay service from 2nd March, and the Bungay - Southwold section of the route from 29th March. It has been announced this week that First Eastern Counties are going to introduce a 99A Southwold - Bungay service from 1st April, however this will be only a 2 hourly service, the timetable yet to be published. One would assume it will connect at Bungay with the X41 into Norwich. However, for the month of March, if you wish to travel from anywhere between Blythburgh and Halesworth to Norwich you are, to put it mildly, screwed.

Despite withdrawing the Bungay - Norwich part of the route, Konectbus have not altered the timetable on the surviving part of the route to give THEIR customers an easy change onto First at Bungay. Of course they haven't. In their statement announcing the withdrawal of the 88 they said thus:

"This change will mean that there will be no through buses between Halesworth and Norwich. We will still be running the Southwold to Bungay via Halesworth route during March. Passengers will need to change buses to a First bus in Bungay. This will mean buying two separate tickets for the journey and we will be reducing the price of all tickets between Halesworth and Bungay during this period so that customers will not have to pay more money. We will also offer refunds on tickets that can no longer be used for all or part of the journey. We do not have final details of the price change yet."

I draw your attention the part that says "we will be reducing the price of tickets between Halesworth and Bungay". Never mind if you live in Blythburgh, Wenaston or Holton then. But that actually doesn't matter, because if you catch the first off peak bus out of Halesworth, as many do, you'll have a 53 min wait for the X41 to Norwich. Isn't that caring! So I doubt many will be taking advantage of the cheaper fares. You can get the 1031 out of Halesworth and only wait 15 mins at Bungay for the slower 2 hourly 41, but that means you don't arrive in Norwich until after Midday. Click on the timetables for bigger view.

Returning isn't much better. You'll have a minimum 25 minute wait at Bungay for a connection to Halesworth.  The afternoon peak gives 3 buses at 1550, 1715 and 1840, but at least the last two services connect well with First services from Norwich, as long as they are on time. I really wouldn't hold out too much hope of the 88 waiting if the X41 is late.

One can only hope that things improve when First take over the entire route, although I'm disappointed there will still be a change at Bungay required. This was an opportunity for First to engage with the people of Halesworth and get many lost customers back on the bus.  Maybe it will happen, but a 2 hourly service isn't going to do much to woo people, especially with a change of bus involved. There is also no news about the services lost by Woodton and particularly Brooke, who in the space of a few months will have dropped from a half hourly service to a two hourly service.

There is no news yet on the future of the 90, which is the Halesworth/Beccles/Southwold triangle. I understand Suffolk County Council are talking to 4 different operators.

One side note - the new contract to operate the 87 between Norwich - Bungay evenings and Sundays has been awarded to......Konect!! Except it's been renumbered 40/41 to match First's services. The Bungay to Halesworth section has been scrapped unless SCC step in, but even if they do you know it will be a different operator and nothing will connect with each other. There is an opportunity for a Bungay - Southwold Summer service linking with the East Suffolk Line at Halesworth if the will is there.

The one and only positive I can see thus far is that the Halesworth - Lowestoft link will be re-established, although you'll have to travel via Southwold but anything is better than nothing. However, I accept that these arrangements have had to be done fairly quickly, without much time for consultation. The good people of Ilketshall, Halesworth, Holton, Wenhaston and Blythburgh will have to hope these are purely interim services, and something more attractive and permanent is forthcoming not too far in the future. Either way, Konect are saying thank you and goodbye to the folks on the 88 who have stuck with them by giving a giant middle finger. There's gratitude for you.

Monday 18 February 2019

Flirt on Test & Tractors on Tour

For the last couple of weeks my sleeping patterns have been totally unpredictable, so after another sleepless night beckoned last week I decided to make the most of it and ventured to Diss to get my first close up look at one of Greater Anglia's new Stadler Class 755 Flirts, which was on overnight testing.

First impressions are good. 755407 was sat in the Up platform, the four V8 engines rumbling away in their centre location.

The Stadler 755 at Diss
The engine compartment
I was also able to see the electric gear for the first time, which will enable the units to switch modes when through journeys from Lowestoft and Peterborough to London are reintroduced next year. Until then the only electrified stretch of line they will operate on will be Ely - Cambridge.

The pantograph equipment on the 755
So that's the exterior but what about the all important interior? Not too much was revealed. The train is loaded with hundreds of bags of aggregate to simulate passengers as well of miles of cables for the testing equipment.

Seating and the universal loo
However the testing crew have to sit somewhere and I managed to find a seat - no 1st class on these trains - uncovered. It looks better than other recent new seats but obviously sitting will be believing. However, here is the seat, which we are able to compare with the infamous ironing board seats on the Thameslink Class 700's

The Flirt seat

The Class 700 ironing board
I have to say the Flirt seat looks far more inviting, but to be acceptable it has to be an improvement on the seats it is replacing, ie the seats on the 156's and 170's. Anything else, better than Thameslink or not, cannot be viewed as progress. I cannot express just how much I want to sit in that seat, breathe a huge sigh of relief, and go "yyeeessss"!!

I waited for 407 to pull out of Diss, hoping to hear the V8's to determine clag levels, but a surprise was in store. The engines were stopped, the pantograph raised, and the Flirt left in electric mode. It sounds smooth. One thing that will take getting used to will be the sound the bogies make going over joints in the track. Not only do coaches share bogies, but with the engine coach being much shorter it means the sound is unusually syncopated. Anyhow, here is the video. The Flirts are scheduled to enter service mid Summer.

That will mean the end of not just the 153/155/170's currently plying their trade in our area, but also arguably the most popular passenger train in regular service in the country - the Class 37 hauled Short Set running between Norwich and Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft. It's easy to take these brilliant machines for granted and forget that nowhere else in the country can you see and ride them on the mainline now the Cumbrian sets have been withdrawn.

This point was brought home on Saturday when Tim and I ventured South to follow a Pathfinder Tour train around Kent and Surrey.  Large logos 37409, a regular in Anglia, and 37402, which was a regular in Cumbria but has never been to Norwich, were the clagmeisters on duty, hauling 7 maroon and cream coaches on a tour that started in Paddington and embarked on a tour taking in Medway, Isle of Sheppey, Margate, Canterbury, Ashford, Hastings, Redhill and Caterham, a branch that I can't  recall seeing a loco hauled train in recent history. We caught up with it in 5 locations - Rochester Station, Sheerness approach, the wonderful Kingsferry Bridge by Swale Station, which I believe to be Kent's least used station, Redhill and Whyteleaf South on the Caterham branch.

Kudos to the drivers for acknowledging the numerous enthusiasts who were out in their droves - except Redhill, strangely enough, when the tones were solely for us!

In between I took Tim to the HS1 viewing point by the Medway Viaduct, and after firstly not bothering with any camera work, as I've been there a few times, decided to video the last Eurostar to roar by, just to test the camera. This still is of a train doing 186mph!

To prove that I have included it in the video of the day. Thanks to Tim for his excellent company, as usual. On the way back I joked it would be good if 402 and 409 went straight to Norwich as back up for the Short Set. Tim messaged me today to tell me that, indeed, they have done just that! We really are spoiled right now, and it's going to seem very empty once they've gone, regardless of how good the Flirts might be.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Optare Tempo SR's for Ipswich Buses

Thanks to several sources I can reveal that Ipswich Buses have bought 13 ex Trent Barton 12 reg Optare Tempo SR's to replace the surviving Optare Excels and Dennis Darts. I confess I'd never heard of the Tempo SR so did some research.

The Tempo SR was launched at Bus and Coach Live in 2011 ans I have to say looks rather smart.

They can seat 41 but have a large standing capacity too.  However, only one batch was ever built, ordered by Trent Barton to operate on their Rainbow 4 service.

Pic by John
I'm not aware of when the Tempos are due to enter service, but as I get the info I'll pass it on. Of course the question is why only 13 were ever made, and why Trent Barton are selling them. At least the Civic V3 seats (thanks Andy) are a whole lot better than the recently acquired Scania deckers!

In other news everyone is bracing themselves for the latest council budget announcements. As far as Suffolk is concerned I've been told subsidised services could face a 20% cut in funding, and 5 routes are under threat. Again, when I hear anything I'll pass it on.

After the last one was badly vandalised, Wickham Market, my old stamping ground in Suffolk formally opened their new bus shelter on Tuesday. I had no idea this was happening and just happened to be passing through. So I stopped, did a bit of nosing around, and left quickly before my mouth got the better of me when I overheard people asking where the buses went. Clearly a lot of non bus users wanted to be seen at the opening of a bus shelter...

The new, and quite impressive shelter at Wickham Market with a lot of car users....