Tuesday 30 July 2019

A Flirt That Doesn't Tease

Now it has been known, from time to time, for your blogger to be a little on the cynical side. Just a tad, of course, but nonetheless it's there. At least I thought it was. Now I'm not so sure, because on the 29th July 2019 all my moans and groans about new trains not being a patch on those they have replaced have been proved right. The 375/9's and most of the 377's are not a patch on the VEPS they replaced.  The 700's, although fantastic trains, are as comfortable as a bed of nails, and in that respect worse than the 319's they replaced. The same goes for the 717's that are replacing the 313's, the GWR 800's replacing the HST125's, and of course the much heralded Azumas replacing the Class 91 + MkIV's. Despite improvements in train performance, they are all undoubtedly, from a passenger's point of view, not an example of 30 or 40 years progress, and I haven't been slow in saying so.

Today saw the maiden passenger journeys of Greater Anglia's new Class 755 bi-mode Stadler Flirts. They have been floating around on test for a few months now, their debut into service keenly awaited. Despite Greater Anglia's assurances that they were going to be better than any other new train around, that the seats were ergonomically designed to give greater comfort, and we'd all love them, I was on the sceptical side. I mean. no one has ever said "hey, we're getting new trains but you'll hate them"! I have had so many disappointments with new trains in recent times I wasn't going to get excited.

So at 1715, platform 6 at Norwich station 755410 pulled in to form the 1736 to Great Yarmouth. I had read many glowing reports from the morning journeys, had spoken to Martin at Lowestoft Station who assured me I'd like them and was chuffed to bits the very first passenger journey for the 755 had started at his station, yet I still wasn't convinced. To make the challenge even harder the Flirt was replacing my beloved Class 37 thrash monsters, who were ticking over in the sidings just to remind me of their presence. The odds were stacked against the Flirt.

755410 pulls into NOrwich Station
The 37's reminding me what the Flirt was up against
So I walked up to the second coach, boarded, chose one of the raised table seats above the bogie, and took my seat. It was love at first sit. The seats are comfortable. I'll say that again just in case you thought you may have misread. The seats are comfortable. Regardless of what else is on a train if the seats aren't any good the journey is ruined before it's begun. No such problems with the Flirt, so having had my main concern alleviated I looked around, and I was actually awestruck. Quite simply the Flirt is a wonderful place to be. It manages to be open yet intimate at the same time, which is one heck of an achievement. The air conditioning is highly efficient yet they still feel warm, not cold and clinical like the 700's. The amount of thought that has gone into these trains is astonishing.

The raised table above the bogie

View from the raised seat
It's little touches that count - every seat has a plug socket and usb charging point, but the plug socket is upside down, meaning you get the extra inch of cable which isn't double backed round itself. The arm between the seats is padded, and even Julie Berry on the auto announcements has different inflections for the different uses of terminus stations. Not that the auto announcements were behaving themselves today, but I know from when the Electrostars were introduced on Southeastern that there will be constant software upgrades over the next few months until everything is sorted out.

Every door has a "step" negating the gap between train and platform, except where there's a curve in the platform. I use inverted commas as the train is level with the platform in height, so there is no step as such. The wheelchair bays are nice places, both with a table and charging points, and just too small to get a bike in, as bikes have their own designated space.

The gap covering step

Wheelchair bay 1

Wheelchair bay 2

The call point and charging points in the wheelchair bay
I haven't mentioned the ride yet. Well, if I'm honest, the ride isn't perfect, and you know what? That's perfect for me as it still feels like a train. You can clearly hear the wheels go over points and track joints. You will still get rocked to sleep by the motion yet I found typing on my laptop very easy. The WiFi was ok, although my laptop kept dropping out. The engine pod is quiet, and feels like walking through a ship, the sound of the four V8 engines well muffled. And boy do those engines have some power. The acceleration for a diesel train is phenomenal, and the mind boggles just what it will be like under electric power.

The engine pod section
I was on the Flirt for well over 3 hours. It didn't feel like it. No aches, pains or numb buttocks, and when I boarded a 156 to return to Lowestoft the seats didn't feel as good, and that made my day.

In conclusion the 755 is what a new train should be - that is a vast improvement on what it is replacing, in ALL aspects. Abellio should be applauded for not just consulting with many people from numerous walks of life about these trains, but listening to them as well, then acting on feedback. They have proved it CAN be done, and done well. I didn't hear a single negative word about the trains, and the staff clearly love them, which is another good indicator. Quite simply these Flirts put all other new trains I have been on to shame. Absolute shame. I'll finish by saying this - anyone, ANYONE who claims to be impartial, and not have a secret agenda who continues to defend the 700's, or the Azumas, or the GWR IET's clearly isn't as impartial as they claim. When the Intercity versions come out later in the year I predict there will be shockwaves through the industry, as passengers in other areas will rightly demand to know why their new trains are so substandard compared the Flirts.

I thought calling them Flirts was highly risky, and could have so easily backfired. In a way it has, but not how I expected. Because rather than Flirts, which are teases, they should have been called Cupids, as I am totally and utterly smitten. I will still travel many a mile to see a 37, but if I'm lucky, that travelling will be on a Flirt, and I really didn't expect to be saying that.

Monday 8 July 2019

Modal Shift? In Their Dreams!

Last week, in case you missed it was "Catch The Bus Week". Suffolk County Council must have missed it as there wasn't a peep out of them. In fact Ipswich Buses were the only Suffolk operator I noticed give it a mention. While the rest of the country had lightning ticket sales and special events to encourage more people to use the bus in East Anglia it was depressingly quiet. Go East will point out that they Tweeted encouraging messages, and so they did. However, I do wonder how many of their followers don't already use the bus, and so they are Tweeting very much to the converted, which isn't the point of "Catch The Bus Week".

It was also "Steve's Car Fails MOT Week". I was fully expecting that, I put it in for an early test to see what needed to be done. What I wasn't expecting (no, not the Spanish Inquisition) was a "Do Not Drive" notice to be slapped on it, for handbrake, of all things. All of a sudden I'm a prisoner in my own village again until repairs are complete later this week. Annoying, but after 3 years back on the road it has given me the opportunity to see what my options are if I was to be totally reliant on public transport again, and if things have improved from 3 years ago, when changes to the DRT areas meant the service became as good as useless.

Well, many of you will have gone to the ECW event at East Anglia Transport Museum over the weekend. I would have ventured up there, if only to congratulate my former blog sparring partner, Sam Larke, on passing his PCV test and becoming one of the Lynx team. Well done, Sam - I have a feeling you will be an asset to the industry, as well as a useful contact!! Expect the long awaited Lynx feature in the next few weeks!

But I couldn't get there. I couldn't get out of the village unless I was prepared to pay £30 in taxi fares just to get to a bus stop. Which I wasn't. The Demand Responsive Service doesn't operate on Sundays, and doesn't serve my village - which is on an A road btw so not exactly a tiny hamlet - on Saturdays. To get to church yesterday I was reliant on the kindness of others. So a quiet weekend in it was. Tomorrow (Tuesday) I need to get to Wickham Market for my weekly social duties. That means DRT to Saxmundham then the 64 to Wickham (remembering that the 1457 conveniently terminates at Wickham Market and doesn't go back to Sax). So I rung Connecting Communities and luckily, mainly because I asked for middle of the day times I got roughly what I wanted.

Something has changed, however, in the last 3 years, which I have touched on before. The DRT services no longer accepts Concessionary Passes. This is the service which is meant to substitute for a local bus service remember, to take people without transport to the shops, doctors, friends, and link up with the main public transport network. It's not called Connecting Communities for nothing. So why are they charging the elderly and disabled now, who can use their passes on normal buses? Because DRT can be booked, and therefore comes under the rules governing coach services. How many people catch Megabus to the doctors, or National Express to the nearest bus stop! That rule governing services that can be booked was to protect long distance coach services, not community minibuses. Not going to exactly encourage people out of their cars that one is it!

So the return fare to Saxmundham is £5.20 for a round trip of 12 miles. That works out at 43.3p a mile. Ah but hang on - I'm only going to Saxmundham to catch the bus to Wickham Market, so forgetting about passes I'll need to pay again. (Waits for @FirstIpswich to answer fare enquiry) (Still waiting as First Twitter HQ in Leeds doesn't have fares data to hand and has to contact Ipswich Depot to find out - no, haven't made this up) (No, information not available on the website) (45 mins later I get my reply!) This is an extra £5.00 for a 17 mile round trip working out at 29.4p a mile. A lot cheaper than the minibus, and a timetabled service I can plan around rather than hope the stars are in the right pattern and a slot is available on the minibus.

But, and it's a big but, I live around 10 miles from Wickham Market using the back roads. A round trip of 20 miles, so how much per mile does that cost me when the car isn't in quarantine? Well, petrol is roughly 10p a mile, then we need to work out everything else. Obviously the more you use a car the cheaper it is to run. I do around 12,000 miles a year, which conveniently is 1,000 a month. Road tax costs me a 1.4p a mile. Insurance works out at 3.1p a mile, and maintenance around 4p a mile. So my round trip of 20 miles would cost me £3.70 instead of £10.20. It would also take 20 mins each way not an hour. And that's just me! If I had a partner the bus fare doubles but the car cost stays the same. You are not going to get people to give up their cars at those exchange rates.

Now a couple of Sundays ago I spent the best part of 16 hours riding on buses. I was in London, of course, and I'll get round to a separate post on that soon. If I lived in London I wouldn't need a car, unless I wanted to go outside London of course! But with London fares and what I'd save not having a car I could afford limousines the other end if necessary! The infrastructure is there. Buses are packed on Sundays. Locals use them because they are cheap and convenient. To put it in perspective if London rates and rules were in operation here my journey to Wickham Market would cost me £1.50 each way - CHEAPER than the car!!! It's a massive difference.

So next time you hear politicians bang on about wanting people to ditch the car for public transport laugh at them. If you live or have need to travel outside a major town or city it's a no brainer. And more cuts are happening to make them look even sillier. To expect people to shift modes without providing cheap, reliable, convenient and frequent alternatives is sheer folly. Quite simply the authorities need to put their money where their mouths are, subsidise buses to the same extent they do railways, and provide a realistic alternative to attract new users that doesn't include charging pensioners to go to the doctors. Actions speak louder than words, and certainly in this region actions are in a state of suspended animation. I want my car back!!

PS While I was waiting for First Ipswich in Leeds to respond I tweeted Stagecoach Southeast with a random fare enquiry, using a location I knew they wouldn't know from memory. I got a response in 6 minutes, with the fare and travel advice. Top marks there. Shows it can be done.