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Thursday, 20 May 2021

How To Drop A Simple Katch!

 Just over two years ago I published the paragraph below, regarding Framlingham, Wickham Marker, and the lack of a bus link to Wickham Market (Campsea Ashe) station. I was a tad frustrated.


So you'd have thought an operator like, say, First would be thinking "hey, there's close on 2,000 people there without a decent bus service - let's go get them" This is where market research comes in. Liase with the local council and community groups to survey the residents to see when and where they want to go. If a community feels consulted and valued it will respond, as it has in Beccles. My guess is a decent link to Wickham Market station would be high on the list, and that's where you link up with Greater Anglia to encourage use - anything from a free coffee at the station to 50% of your bus fare off the rail fare, the possibilities are endless. Hell, Wickham Market hasn't got a bus to Wickham Market station, and it's a 3 mile walk down a busy road with no pavements! Connect with the 64 and bingo. But no, too much like hard work doing the research and unlike any other industry Heaven forbid they actually employ anyone to do the market research.

So you can imagine my delight when I heard that a new, Covid delayed service was starting up linking Framlingham, Wickham Market and Wickham Market station, operating 7 days a week with bunny hugging friendly electric minibuses. Just what we need, I thought. Now all we need is the service tailored to local needs, promotions with Greater Anglia etc and we are onto something. I should have heard alarm bells when I saw the name - Katch. Anyone who thinks Katch is a, well, catchy name is not going to have thought things through. Sadly my instincts have been proved correct. Let me introduce you to Katch.


The initial impression isn't great - that doesn't look much like Framlingham Castle, and as a former resident of Wickham Market I can say with certainty the church is not shaped like that! However, let's not judge a book by it's cover and carry on. What is Katch all about? Well it's this..


And here are the electric vehicles in question, leased from Citroen




Apologies for the poor quality of the above pic, a monumental thunderstorm had just announced its presence and I forgot to wipe the lens before taking the pic!

Here is the map of the area served.


These are screenshots taken from the website, and they aren't great, so if you need to stop squinting you can visit the Katch website by clicking here. Of course there are times and fares, and here they are. 


So, on the face of it a new service linking a small town and large village with the nearest station, using electric vehicles, operating 7 days a week. Marvelous. Now let's put some flesh on the bones. It is just over 6 miles from Framlingham to WM station and 3 miles from WM to the station. I assume the idea is to encourage non drivers to use the bus as well as hoping drivers will leave cars at home and use the electric bus instead, thus cutting emissions. So here is scenario one.

Grandma and Grandpa who live in Wickham Market want to take their 3 grandchildren out for the day by train. The conversation goes like this:

GM: Tell you what, love, let's not drive to the station but take that new electric bus
GP:  Nice idea, it says it's a taxibus so it will pick us up from home, won't it?
GM: Erm no, we have to walk up to the bus stop, it only serves bus stops.
GP:  Oh that's not very convenient with my knee but I'll manage - at least we can use our bus passes.
GM  Erm no, because it's a bookable service they don't accept bus passes.
GP:  So we've got to walk and pay - must be cheap then.
GM: Erm well for the 5 of us it will be £23 
GP:  HOW MUCH? You do know parking at the station is £2.50 all day and it will cost less than a quid          in petrol? Does it connect with the last train from Ipswich?
GM: Erm no........

Scenario Two

Mrs Blyth works in Ipswich. She has been driving in as the normal bus service finishes too early to get her home, so the thought of taking it easy on the train is a good one, and she'll save on her £20 a week parking and £25 a week petrol. That is until she finds out that a weekly season from Wickham Market Station to Ipswich is £33.20, and since the electric bus doesn't do anything other than day tickets 5 days to the station and back will cost her £35. So the luxury of taking the train after walking to and from her nearest bus stop will cost her £68.20, an increase of £23.20 a week, or £1,206 a year. 

Just who is this service aimed at? The first consideration of anyone contemplating a new service or initiative has to be "who is my market and where do they want to go". The next consideration is "how do I get them onto the bus". None of this has been thought of. I've said it time and again that if a bus service is to be successful it has to be convenient and financially attractive. Katch is neither. It has the drawbacks of the bus, ie only serving bus stops, but none of the advantages, ie accepting bus passes or doing group/period tickets. But they aren't the only drawbacks with Katch. If you look at the map you'll see the route passes through Hatcheston and Parham. There are bus stops in both those locations. But Katch doesn't serve them. It seems the reason for that is although the vehicles are electric the doors and step aren't, so the driver has to get out and operate them manually, and they don't want drivers doing that on a busy road. Understandable except both stops are in a 30mph limit and the road isn't that busy.

So Scenario 3

Two friends, one living in Framlingham, the other down the road in Parham decide to go out for the day. Shall we get the new bus to the station? Well I can get it but you can't as it won't stop in Parham because they didn't get a bus with an electric door.....I'll pick you up in the car as normal.

There are two minibuses. When I made enquiries today it transpired that between them there were 4 bookings. All day, and two of those were the same people. But maybe that's a good thing as if it does get busy Katch is going to have problems. You see a round trip from Framlingham is around 12 miles. The minibuses have a range of between 65 - 75 miles, so after 5 trips they'll need recharging, which will take 6 - 8 hours. Thus if both minibuses are used to their max from 6.30am, by 9.30 they'll need recharging and won't be back till late afternoon - you really couldn't make it up.

Other value for money features are you can go one stop or the full distance and it will cost the same. They don't serve Thomas Mills school so anyone running late due to doctors eg, or staying after school can't use Katch as an alternative for getting to/from home. They don't connect with the first train M-F or last train any day. Here is my favourite stat I discovered - in theory if there were enough hours in the day you could commute by bus from Southwold - Peterborough for £29.20 a week. 5 days Wickham Market - Wickham Market station on Katch is £35. 

I would dearly love to know who Suffolk CC were aiming at when they came up with Katch. Certainly not commuters with no season tickets. Certainly not families with no group tickets, Certainly not the elderly, not accepting bus passes. Certainly not the young, not serving the major school in the area. Certainly not the disabled, only serving bus stops. Certainly not the poor, charging the earth before train fares are added on top. In fact I've managed to come up with just two types of people who might benefit from Katch. Firstly anyone living near a bus stop served by Katch who gets a taxi to the station every day. They would save money. Secondly people wanting to visit Framlingham for the day, to pay their respects to Ed Sheeran etc might be attracted by the bus from the station. That's not going to help locals though.

The question I couldn't get out of my head after today's research was "what is the incentive for people to start using the service?" and you know I couldn't find one. Why is there no promotion with Greater Anglia, for example, knocking 50% of the bus fare off your rail ticket? Why doesn't it connect with the last train from Ipswich? Currently that means if you go to London for the day you have to be on the 1930 out of Liverpool St to connect with the last Katch. Why is there no promotion with other bus operators to encourage modal shift? Why has there been no consultation with the local community? Yet again someone paid to come up with bright ideas has assumed just because a new bus is launched people will use it. Well they won't, and just like just about every DRT scheme up and down the country Katch is doomed to failure too, purely because not enough thought or vision was put into it. Yet another opportunity missed. And these are the people we're hoping to create partnerships to embrace the Bus Back Better scheme. Laurel and Hardy put more thought into getting that darned piano down those stairs.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

End Of The Happy Trains

 Let's go back a quarter of a century to 1996. Dolly the sheep is born, Take That split up, Gazza scores that goal against Scotland, and I saw a train. I know exactly where I was too - on the road bridge outside Gillingham Station in Kent, and it was then I saw my first Class 365 Networker Express. Oh I was used to Networkers alright - the Kent Metro lines were flooded by class 465/6s in 1992 and I still had a grudge against them for replacing my beloved EPB slamdoor trains. But this was different - it was in that superb Connex livery which I don't think has ever been bettered on the 365's, and it was operating a Chatham mainline service, something which at that time was the monopoly of the VEPS, CEPS and rarely CIGS. 

365502 in Connex livery at Whitstable

At this time there were only a couple of journeys a day due to issues obtaining a safety certificate but I soon found out what they were and got on one. I still maintain the original 365 interiors were the best interior I've ever seen on a train, and with the sterile interiors currently being churned on modern trains I doubt they'll ever be matched. I fell in love with the decor, comfort, ride, and those traction motors that sounded like a grand prix car! 

The original Std class 365 interior

Of course it wasn't just Connex that got 365's - indeed the 16 units Connex received were on lease from West Anglia Great Northern (WAGN) who had the remaining 25 sets for the Kings Cross - Peterborough/Cambridge/Kings Lynn services. These units, however retained NSE livery.

365535 at Peterborough                         photo markkirk85

I was lucky enough to guard the Connex 365's on the Chatham lines, and have some very happy memories. They were a joy to work - easy to stand in at high speed and the passengers loved them too. I was really sorry to see them return to WAGN in early 2004 by which time Connex had been replaced by Southeastern. By then, however, the WAGN units had taken on a different look. Due to the drivers cabs being fitted with air conditioning a new front had been fitted to the 365's, the look that would gain the trains the nickname of the 'happy trains'.
365530 at a rather weedy Cambridge

It cannot go unmentioned that it was a 365 involved in the 2002 Potters Bar derailment, which tragically led to 7 deaths and 76 injuries. The unit, 365526 never returned to service. I was waiting to work a 365 out of Cannon St when the news of the derailment came through. A very sobering moment. 

In 2006 WAGN was succeeded by First Capital Connect, who also ran Thameslink and Moorgate services under the same franchise
Unidentified 365 in FCC livery

In 2014 FCC was succeeded by Govia Thameslink Railway, who still operate the Great Northern franchise today. Unfortunately the refurbishment programme had already began, a process that saw the 365's lose their original interior, to be replaced with a much more sterile look. Gone were the dark greens and purples, and the carpets, and a clinical blue and white interior emerged. 


The refurbished interior.

In 2017 the 365's demise began when they were relegated to peak time services only following the introduction of the class 387 Electrostars and the Thameslink 700's, which took over some of Great Northern's work. The units with odd fleet numbers were withdrawn, but a few units found their way to Scotland in 2019 to cover for the late delivery of Scotrail's 385s. They proved popular in Scotland despite their short stay. May 15th 2021 saw the last 365's withdrawn from passenger service with Great Northern. It remains to be seen if they have a future carrying passengers. 

Over the last couple of weeks I have been saying my goodbyes to the 365's, and thanks to assistance from Great Northern, have managed to take a number of photos and videos in various locations, as well as a last ride from London to Peterborough. They made me happy, and the railways will be a less smiley place without them. Here are a few of the photos I took, and it's fitting that the final pic is of 365502, in service to the very end, so we finish where we started.








Here is the video, taken at Alexandra Palace, Peterborough, Kings Cross and Huntingdon. Once again my thanks to Great Northern for their invaluable assistance. If the video doesn't appear below click here




Friday, 23 April 2021

The Big Cat That's Got The Cream

 On Monday I had my first proper day out since November, and ventured up to North Norfolk to sample the two newest double decker buses in East Anglia. Kings Lynn based Lynx (it has only just dawned on me how clever that name is) have splashed out on two ADL E400MMC's for their flagship Coastliner route between Kings Lynn and Fakenham. Always happy to publicise new vehicles in our area, with the exception of Streetlites, I decided to go and try them out. With help from Lynx driver and good friend Sam Larke - yes, he who used to make my life a misery when running Norwich Buses blog - I was able to plan a return trip to Hunstanton which would enable me to travel on both of the new buses. Indeed, I had a good natter with Sam before nipping up to the car park roof at Kings Lynn bus station to take a few videos, including Sam leaving on his own departure to Hunstanton. He's turned out ok!



By this time the first of the new deckers had arrived, taking a break before following Sam an hour behind. I have to say it looks superb. 



So I boarded, and was greeted with that lovely new smell. The interior is good, with a smart moquette and an attractive and very comfortable seat design. Luggage rack downstairs and tables upstairs. USB and wireless charging is available with bell pushes on the rear of every seat.



Off we went, and I was hoping ADL had improved the ride of the E400 as much as they have the E200. It was ok - quiet, smooth and little body noise, although it being only their 3rd day in services there shouldn't have been. However, it didn't feel that solid and I finally thought of the right analogy for riding a new E400MMC. It's like watching your child perform. You know how much effort has gone in to the preparations, be it practice, rehearsal, training etc. The costume/outfit/strip is pristine, no other child looks better than yours yet you watch them with your stomach tied in knots, knowing that everything could fall apart at any moment - the wrong note, forgotten line, open goal missed, the fall off the beam etc and you'll end up mopping up a tearful and distraught child. I had that feeling on Monday. The presentation is superb, both inside and out. Everything is pleasing on the eye, yet you have that sickly feeling inside that one large pothole and everything will start falling apart and rattling like a 1930's football crowd. That is a shame, but I never had that feeling with Olympians, and I don't with Metrodeckers or BCI's. It is so frustrating that 95% of the bus is excellent, yet that missing 5% makes all the difference - the 'that'll do' attitude. I was talking to a manager the other day who was totally exasperated that the new MMC he took out for a test run had a cab door that rattled. What I really can't understand is how ADL seem ok with this and keep churning them out. Where's their pride in their product?

Anyhow I'll go back in a few months and hope to be proved wrong - at least the roads in North Norfolk are better than most. If I was being cynical I'd say it was due to the proximity to Sandringham but surely not! 

Sam had told me if everything was running to time I'd get the chance to film the two new buses together at the soon to be demolished Hunstanton bus station, and he was right. Never mind my niggles about the ride, they look magnificent. By time you read this both should have their vinyls applied so to get the all red one before vinyls was good.





A word about the operator. Lynx are arguably the best operator for their size in East Anglia. Their buses, and staff, are always immaculately turned out, their network of routes is good, their fleet is good, and I would spend far more time over there if it wasn't for one thing. Even in my boyhood I wouldn't travel on routes operated by single deckers for fun, unless it was vital to link up with another route. If there was a way of getting where I wanted by double decker that is how I would go. It still is. Unless it's to review a new vehicle or unavoidable I don't like travelling by single decker - there are only a couple of decent seats on a single decker and they get taken quickly. One of the joys of double deckers is you see things you never see in a car, or single decker! The journey to Hunstanton and back on Monday was made so much more enjoyable because of the views - some of them stunning - from the top deck. I'll be back to do the full run to Fakenham, but only on a double decker, rattles or not! Nothing wrong with Tempos for commuting or shopping purposes, but for fun you cannot beat a top deck.

I also took the opportunity to see how the E400 Citys on First's Excel route were fearing, 14 months after their introduction. Well, the body noise was roughly what I expected, although there seemed to be a lot more coming up from the lower deck than there was on top. The CIS screens weren't working, neither was the WiFi, and the next stop announcement was spasmodic to say the least. The seats don't feel nearly as comfortable as they look, yet from the outside the buses still look seriously eye catching - an ADL trait!


Then to finish the day I travelled to Beccles on one of the predecessors of the E400 City on the Excel route, that are now plying their trade on the Coastlink X1/X2/22 services. Again they look great, but the buses are really showing their age (all of 8 years) and 33814 was drowning out its own engine in body noise. But it was a double decker, and on a glorious day like Monday, sometimes the wonder of the views can drown out even ADL rattles!




Tuesday, 16 March 2021

National Bus Strategy - My Thoughts

 Hi everyone! Yes, still here, just had precious little to write about over the last 6 months. Not being allowed on public transport has its disadvantages when it's what you write about, and since everything is currently on hold until things pick up again, like everyone else I'm in a state of limbo. 

However, yesterday the long awaited National Bus Strategy was published by Her Majesty's Government, setting out how buses are going to recover, expand and progress over the coming years. You can download the document by clicking here.

Now you'll have to forgive me for being a tad sceptical about the whole thing - after all it's designed and published by the same people who have wielded the axe on thousands of bus services over the last decade and more, not to mention promised us 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses, 20,000 more police, no hard borders, the elderly not having to sell their homes to cover care costs and so much more. Even the title of the strategy - Bus Back Better - made me wonder what that exactly means, it's not even proper english! 

It starts by proclaiming how wonderful and important bus services are, how vital to rural communities and how buses must be instrumental in modal shift from cars. Stopped laughing yet? It goes on to say how Local Transport Authorities (you know - the ones starved of cash for years) need to form partnerships with operators to develop a bus network that everyone will not only want to use, but will also be so convenient they'll be able to use it for just about anything, from getting to and from work, to going out weekends and evenings. Night buses in towns, Sunday and evening services in rural locations connecting with trains to get people home. Through ticketing, multi-operator ticketing, flat fares, capped fares, cameras at bus stops for security, timetables and info at every bus stop (except those on "turn up and go" routes that will be so frequent "passengers won't need timetables", looking forward to those springing up in Suffolk), more bus lanes and priority systems, even more guided busways (sorry, Tim).

There's more - all competing operators on the same route must have the same route number and include all other operators in the timetable. Lord knows how that would affect routes like Borderbus. 146, that competes with First's 99 for a third of the route and the X2/X22 for the other two thirds. Of course it doesn't say who would have to change their route number - it seems the new LTA/Operator partnership would have to sort it out themselves.

And sort it out they must, because without a partnership there won't be any money. So any Council who doesn't form one of these partnerships will not be eligible for any of the £3b allocated to the project. That is rather scary, as there are some councils who see buses as way down the list of priorities. 

Other jewels in the crown are 4,000 carbon neutral buses, major trunk routes with feeder services linking communities to them - sure I've mentioned that before - more publicity for tourist routes and so on. All sounds wonderful, but let's take a look at what wasn't mentioned. 

Ask any operator, and they will tell you the most expensive part of their operation is the staff, particularly drivers. Not just wages, but uniforms, pensions, NI contributions, CPC renewals, H&S courses etc. There is also a national shortage of bus drivers. Nowhere in the document is driver recruitment mentioned. On top of that, outside of the major towns shiftwork on buses has all but died. Services operate 7 - 7 and so do most of the drivers. Bringing back evening and Sunday buses will necessitate a huge increase in the number of drivers, who will all need training etc. Will the cost of that be included in the £3b? DRT is mooted for rural locations, especially to connect with trains - looking forward to a driver being paid to sit in a minibus outside Saxmundham station to connect with the last train on a Sunday! Yes, that's the same DRT that has been tried and failed in many areas, and here in Suffolk was cut back to the point of being useless 4 years ago. 

There was also no mention of how, exactly, car drivers were to be lured from their cars onto buses apart from pretty buses with usb charging and comfortable seating, although at least that's an improvement on new trains. So how are you going to encourage Mrs Smith to leave her car at home on a freezing February morning and walk half a mile to the nearest bus stop? Not an easy task when Mrs Smith forks out £1200 a year on car insurance, quite possibly £160+ a year on excise duty, MOT and service costs and can go door to door in comfort, warmth, with her favourite music playing. Ironically, you have to start by making running a car cheaper. If you spend that much running a car you're going to use it, and justifiably so. Nothing in the document to tackle that little problem, and there really is no easy solution. But not many people spending that much on a car will want to spend - or be able to afford to spend - hundreds more a year on bus fares. I was looking forward to reading in the document about enterprising schemes such as incentives for employers to cover a percentage of bus fares for employees willing to leave their cars at home. DRT buses serving industrial estates was mentioned - yeah right! Sorry, Jim, we've got an extra couple of users tonight so your journey home will be half hour longer than usual...

When I was growing up going into town for a shopping trip was an exciting event. Big supermarkets were still a thing of the future so grocery shopping was done locally. You went into town for clothes, to go to the bank, buy a record and have lunch in a cafe. You only shopped for as much as you could carry home on the bus. That has all changed so what incentives are there to do your shopping by bus these days? Would it be that difficult for the Government to link up with supermarkets and offer free same day delivery for customers shopping by bus? Iceland (the store) offers a you shop we deliver service so why not the big supermarkets? Many people don't like home delivery because they can't choose products themselves, or especially with the elderly get confused with online ordering. Get the bus to the supermarket, shop at your leisure, have a coffee, get the bus home and we'll deliver your shopping to you. Sounds good doesn't it. 

I was also looking forward to seeing how LTA's would engage with their communities to encourage growth of bus ridership. Nothing. Not a thing. Is it rocket science to have a competition among local primary schools to design the bus livery for the route serving them? After all they are the customers of the future - get them involved with their bus service early on and they'll feel part of it - something that the savvi operators have already sussed and are doing. If a community feels something belongs to them they will support it, be it a shop, village hall, school or bus service. Think I've mentioned that before too!

So all in all I'm not brimming with excitement. It seems they want an Oyster style system everywhere without the franchising which is crucial to Oyster's operation. Mini oysters, covering local areas, but who will set the boundaries. Having said that, they are right in saying contactless will soon replace smartcards, so seamless boundaries could be possible, but still tough if you live close to a boundary and live in one area but work in another.

To achieve what is set out in the strategy will cost far, far more than the £3b allocated in infrastructure changes alone, before the cost of recruitment, new vehicles, marketing etc is taken into account - and who will be responsible for marketing/bus stop info etc? The operator, in which case on a shared route who is responsible, and what if the other operator suddenly changes times, or the LTA, in which case which budget will it come out of? 

To conclude here is a very local example of what needs to change if public transport use is going to not only return to pre Covid levels, but exceed them. My nearest biggish town is Lowestoft. It costs around 7 quid in petrol to get there and back, If I had a partner and they came with me it would still cost around 7 quid. If we went by public transport, well there's no bus to the station and DRT is no use here now, so that's £15 for a taxi. A return from Darsham to Lowestoft is £11.20, if we want to go to Aldi or Morrison's that's another £3 return on the bus, and we can only shop what we can carry. Train back to Darsham then another taxi home - total cost for me alone £44.20, for two of us £58.40. Compared to £7 quid in the car which I've already paid tax, insurance and maintenance costs on, not to mention the cost of buying the car in the first place. 

It isn't a case of just putting pretty buses on the road, it's changing the way society thinks, and there is nothing to tackle that in the strategy. The lack of response yesterday from the bus industry was noticeable, and even those that did respond were predictable and used the same language they would for any announcement promising £3b for the industry. 

That's enough from me, stay safe, hopefully we can all start using public transport again soon, and that in 5 years time I can look at this post and say wow I got that wrong!

Bus Back Better - someone was paid to come up with that!