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"!