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