Another escape from paper ticketting

Around two years ago, I was making use of Arriva’s m-Ticket app on a Blackberry Curve 8520 that I then owned. Apart from a certain sluggishness due to the hardware and its 2G internet connection, it worked fine until I forgot the PIN that it needed. From then on, I returned to paper bus tickets and stuck with them ever sense.

However, curiosity and a better phone have me having another go. This time it’s from Google’s Play Store from which I got the app. It remains free of charge and seems so that the world of Android and a HTC Desire S armed with 3G connectivity have made for a smoother and faster experience. The fact that it is a touchscreen phone allows the developers to make a better interface too.

Also, there are some savings to be had. For instance, a North West four weekly ticket costs £56.70 and a day ticket for the same area is £4.20. The paper counterpart to the latter is £4.60 and four weekly tickets will set you back £72.00. Interestingly, weekly tickets cost the same via the app as they do from a bus driver.

To work the app needs personal details such as name, address and date of birth. For payment, you can store a credit (or debit) card number in the app with the card’s security code and a PIN provided by Arriva needed for any transactions. Topping up beforehand is another option if you don’t like the idea of card details on a phone.

With the app, you can see ticket prices before you buy and activate any that you buy price to use. There are no single journey tickets on here so they need to be bought from a bus driver. That must make the app easier to maintain for the developers and means that the range of tickets is easier to browse. While doing, I found some for areas that I might be inclined to visit such as Northumberland’s coast. It’s good to see what’s out there ahead of time instead of holding up a bus trying to get the information. That it’s all doable on the move only helps too.

This time around, that PIN will be stored somewhere for safekeeping and my hope is that my time with mobile bus ticketting will continue longer than it did two years ago. It might surprise you now but I had put this option out of my mind until I spotted someone else showing a phone to a bus driver on getting aboard. That was enough to make me go investigating again.

Back to darker ages?

It was in August 11th of 2009 that Cheshire East Council launched a new and very welcome innovation: a real time bus tracker for two of the bus routes in the borough. One was the 130 between Macclesfield and Manchester and the other was the 27 between Macclesfield and Knutsford.

After more than three years, it seems that we are being relieved of this useful service from October 6th. It only ever may have been a pilot but it came in handy during many a disruption, particularly when I worked at a place based in the countryside and not in a town as I do now. As it happened, my bus home today was delayed by nearly twenty minutes and the Timeline (that’s its proper name) service proved its worth in keeping me posted as to when it would arrive.

Of course, it hasn’t been perfect. For one thing, streetside screens providing real time information were limited and ended up being installed in strange places: Alderley Edge instead of Wilmslow’s Green Lane, Fallibroome Road in Macclesfield instead of somewhere more central like Churchill Way. However, there was a screen installed at Macclesfield General Hospital so it wasn’t all unusual. However, these placements meant that it was the web-based service that came in most handy with being in possession of a smartphone allowing access to the latest arrival times while waiting at a bus stop.

Latterly, performance hasn’t been perfect either with parts being needed for the system earlier in the year and taking a while to be put in place too. Not every bus operating a service had the required tracking equipment either so scheduled times were what appeared for those and they could be very misleading when a bus has been cancelled because of a breakdown.

What has reduced my own dependency on the service in recent times has been timely running of services apart from tonight. The summer holidays have helped too as has the opening of the Alderley Edge bypass and the better performance of the M6. Getting home on winter evenings often involved a deal of uncertainty when traffic conditions clearly were far from ideal. There have been waits in the dark of around 60-90 minutes when road traffic accidents and winter storms, including snow and ice, caused chaos. November often turned out to be an eventful month along the A34 but January gales caused their share of disruption too when they caused electricity power supply failure that turned off traffic lights. Those events don’t seem to have intruded for a while but maybe I have other means of dealing with these.

Working from home is one option that has come my way and comes in handy when there’s a fall of snow or some other weather event. That it keeps me productive too during times when the road system doesn’t work as well as it should helps too. My workplace also has an urban situation as I mentioned earlier so evenings of catching buses on dark roads through the countryside are behind me for now; it’s not the best of circumstances when things don’t run so smoothly. In fact, it offers the fallback of going home by train should road traffic really become gridlocked.

Another factor could be that bus operators have got better at timing their services. Even the this year’s two week closure of the Alderley Edge bypass around the end of June and the start of July had little effect on service running for the 130, much to my surprise. That we have an economic downturn probably helps too because it cuts down on the number of cars on the road.

Even with more reliable bus services, it remains a shame to see real time bus tracking going from us in Cheshire East. Sadly, it looks unlikely too that it will be replaced for a while given the current constraints on public spending. While that makes me think about contingency measures, I am left wondering about how many were making use of the service as well. In the beginning, it got its share of publicity but that later waned. Also, the unreliability that it suffered and the changeover to a web based map interface made it less convenience for smartphone users unless you had links to parts of the older site like I did. Looking at it now, it probably needed investment to make it better and more comprehensive and it appears this is the wrong time for that.

So, could we manage without it by doing better than standing at bus stops in hope like before. Twitter seems an obvious candidate for such things and that may be something the council may wish to explore but it needs manpower and I am not sure that they have that. There has been a lot of talk about the “Big Society” and Cheshire East’s answer to Torbay Bus Routes would be commendable. It would take more than a one man effort though seeing as my own are limited as things stand.

Bus companies are active on Twitter too and High Peak have their own account. With the provision of delay information to the nearest minute, that could be a substitute but it needs an investment of time and effort to rise above the provision of general information. There is an unused Arriva Northwest Twitter account or at least it purports to be that with someone’s name attached to it. It would be good to see Arriva’s bus operation in this part of the world being as active on Twitter as those in the Northeast and Yorkshire and there’s room for bettering those too.

Real time bus tracking will be no more in Cheshire East on the same day that the Macclesfield to Knutsford bus service becomes a commercial enterprise without council financial support. The coincidence looks linked and is a sign of the austere times through which we are living. Would a more vibrant economy with stable public finances bring us better things, the ever handy real time bus tracking among them? It is hard to answer that but time could tell an interesting story.

Getting to and about Pembrokeshire without a car

Though it’s at the southwestern corner of Wales, Pembrokeshire is worth the extra effort taken to make a visit there and you can manage one without using a car too. There are regular train services and the county council expends some effort on its bus network too. Thus far, I only have made two visits to these parts with the most recent one updating and refreshing my knowledge of the available travel options.

Trains

The county has no less than three railway lines serving it with Arriva Trains Wales running the trains: one each to the terminii of Pembroke Dock, Milford Haven and Fishguard. Each of these is largely single track in nature so service frequencies are not hourly. Those three railways start out as a twin line from Carmarthen before the Pembroke line splits off after Whitland and the Fishguard one after the request-only train stop of Clarbeston Road.

The Milford Haven line seems to see the more traffic than others with many services travelling all of the way to Manchester using two carriage trains, something that Arriva Trains Wales may need to revisit in light of a recent Saturday journey on a busy Summer Bank Holiday weekend though another on the following Monday worked out less busy.

Though the port only sees two daily ferry departures to Rosslare in Ireland, Fishguard too gets a reasonable service even if the frequency is less than the two hourly one enjoyed by Milford Haven and Haverfordwest (Pembrokeshire’s county town). Last May, it also gained a new station called Fishguard & Goodwick so that’s something for the locals in both places.

The Pembroke Dock line also gets a largely two-hourly service (less than that on Sundays though) so it’s an option for getting to attractive spots like Tenby and Manorbier. Pembroke too is a ferry port with departures for Rosslare though it is Fishguard that enjoys a service meeting its early morning arrival from across the Irish Sea.

Ferries

The mention of ferry services brings to mind a curiosity about services to Wales from Rosslare in Ireland’s county of Wexford. The Stena Line ones go to Fishguard while those operated by Irish Ferries go to Pembroke instead. While I might have thought that history might explain this situation, it seems to be a recent phenomenon and one for which I have yet to find an explanation part from running different routes for the sake of personal success. Maybe it’s down to competition on the Irish Sea? After all, there was a time when both forbears of Irish Ferries and Stena Line used Fishguard for a time. Then again, there was opposition mounted by Sealink (Stena these days) to the commencement of a Dublin-Holyhead operation by the B+I Line (now part of Irish Ferries) when that replaced the previous long standing Dublin-Liverpool service when that became unsustainable after 159 years.

Buses

Returning the world of land transport, Pembrokeshire does have a reasonable bus network and inspection of bus timetables reveals that council financial support is needed for most if not all services. Richards Brothers of Cardigan seem to operate most of the services in Pembrokeshire along their workings in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. First Cymru do operate a Haverfordwest-Tenby service but otherwise Pembrokeshire seems to be a bastion for local independent operators and it’s no bad thing to see.

There’s multi-operator ticketting too with West Wales Rover Tickets valid here as they are in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. An adult day ticket will cost you £7 and it’s £28 for an adult weekly one. There are equivalent child tickets costing half the prices of the adult ones.

Richards do their own day and weekly tickets too and these cost less than their multi-operator counterparts and only apply to their own services. An adult day Explorer will set you back £5.50 and it’s £18 for a weekly Explorer. The child equivalents of these cost £3.50 and £12, respectively. Interestingly, there’s also a family day Explorer ticket for either two adults and two children or one adult and three children. With my seeing quite a number of families around on my last visit, I reckon that this is a great idea that should be adopted in more places.

In terms of the type of bus services being operating, there’s a mix of trunk routes and other more visitor friendly coastal services that aim to give folk an alternative to clogging up narrow country roads with car traffic; some only are a single car’s width with hedges on either side so it’s best to be warned. Given the wonders of Pembrokeshire’s coastline, it is easy to see why so many visitors come here and there’s a National Park protecting it all along with the Preseli Hills too. Traffic jams and conservation don’t go hand in hand so something had to be done.

The trunk services do their bit for curtailing car usage too with services like Haverfordwest-Fishguard-Cardigan (412), Haverfordwest to St. Davids (411), St. Davids to Fishguard (413) and Haverfordwest to Tenby (349) offering decent service frequencies from Monday to Saturday. On Sundays though, there is a markedly reduced frequency on some of these with the 413 not running at all.

In fact, my last visit saw me make use of the Sunday 412, operated by W. H. Collins of Haverfordwest with a Duple-bodied Dennis Javelin coach that was more than twenty years old so low operation only seems to be a Monday to Saturday affair on this route. The vehicle’s age became more apparent when the windscreen wipers needed to be put going because of a rain shower though the coach ran well otherwise. There was ticket machine on board either so the validity of my return fare of £5.75 (the single is £3.40) depended on my being remembered by the driver! With three to four services on Sunday, no staff changeover was needed and I got back to Haverfordwest from Fishguard without any bother.

The coastal services especially come into their own during the summer months when seven day operation is available with three services each way a day being common. Away from the May to September period, the days of operation need checking since a number are Monday/Thursday/Saturday only and routes alter too. However, Saturday visitors should be fine all year around and there is something to be said for exploring somewhere when it is quieter too though a coastline of around 180 miles in length should have plenty of unoccupied nooks and crannies.

The northern and western coasts are well served and the southern coast isn’t neglected either. The Strumble Shuttle (404) runs from Fishguard to St. Davids and calls at Strumble Head, hence the name. Buses take a while to cover their route on this service so it could be a good one for those wanting to let someone else do the driving and look at what they pass along the way. Mind you, it can get cosy on the small buses used during the school summer holidays but that’s such a not a big price to pay. Also running from Fishguard is the Poppit Rocket (405) that calls at Poppit Sand and other places by the coast on the way to Cardigan; in the off season, it starts eastbound journeys from Newport instead though.

In the west, there’s the Celtic Coaster (403) and the Puffin Shuttle. The former of these is a summer only shuttle service for St. Davids peninsula. Given that Britain’s smallest city has its share of attractions and is not far from alluring coastline, it is not surprising to learn that it is something of a visitor magnet so this bus service is an attempt to curtail traffic in the area to keep it appealing to those coming from elsewhere. The latter route is in two parts though: St. Davids to Marloes and Martin’s Haven (400), and Haverfordwest/Milford Haven to Marloes and Martin’s Haven (315). On my first visit to Pembrokeshire, I made use of the latter though it doesn’t seem to be what it was back then with afternoon journeys to Haverfordwest seemingly unavailable; a journey by train looks to be in order.

Services 387 and 388 (the latter is summer only and both get the branding of Coastal Cruiser) get you from Pembroke to delights such as Bosherston, a recommendation from a local on my first visit that I have yet to follow up, Freshfield East, Angle and Freshfield West. On my latest visit, I played with the idea of catching the 349 to Manorbier and then the 387 or 388 from Bosherston after a walk before sticking with trotting between Strumble Head and Fishguard instead. The unused idea could be handy yet.

Summary

All in all, Pembrokeshire is well supplied with train, bus and even ferry services. A little upfront work might save a lot of driving and not a little congestion. So far, it has done just that for me and there is more of Pembrokeshire for me to savour yet.

A crowded railway on a crowded island

The prospect of a double bank holiday weekend was enough to set me thinking about going away somewhere. After pondering some options, I decided on a few days around Pitlochry. That meant that I enjoyed some dry and occasionally sunny weather why other parts of Britain and Ireland were getting a soaking.

The price of that enjoyment was getting there and away. Because Pitlochry is in the heart of Scotland, I settled on a return rail journey for the sum of £107.60. The journey time was set to be around seven hours but that wasn’t something that I minded and a journey that was quiet and relaxing would have suited me to the ground.

On the way there, travelling was more frenetic than might be desirable. The cause was a fatality on the West Coast Mainline near Leyland. If I had gone with my initial route that involved changes at Kidsgrove, Crewe and Edinburgh, I would have been stranded on a stationary train to the south of the incident and perhaps avoided a little of the saga that unfolded.

As it happened, I took a later train to Manchester (that was a busy CrossCountry service but everyone had their own seat) where I got on the heaving 09:16 Transpennine Express service to Glasgow. That got so uncomfortably busy that I alighted in Preston to catch another train. The train itself was formed of six carriages but there were for Glasgow and three were for Blackpool. It would have been better if all six were bound for Scotland and it highlights the foolishness of handing Manchester-Scotland services over to Transpennine Express in the first place. Electrification of the Manchester-Leyland line may gain us four carriage trains but that is insufficient on this route, at least at peak times like the one at which I was travelling.

If I could have remained on that train, it would have spared me any impact of the Leyland fatality on my journey. As things were, it was standing room only on that service and I had luggage with me. One good thing that came from my exit was it made it easier for a mother and child to get off at Preston.

Once at Preston, it became a waiting game and we all were ushered onto a Transpennine Express train to Lancaster. It became yet another overload three carriage diesel train and railway packed in as many as they could too. The advice was to catch a rail replacement coach from Lancaster though the reopening of the line at Leyland by then was the cause of some confusion.

Planned weekend rail engineering works fortuitously meant that there were hourly rail replacement coaches available since the train service was reduced between Lancaster and Carlisle from 11:00 on that Saturday as a result. There still were trains running, albeit at a reduced frequency.

With so many false dawns with trains that morning, I opted for the certainty of a coach ride instead of waiting for another train. At that stage, I didn’t know if I was going all the way to Carlisle on the coach or not but it was taking me north anyway and i only cared about that at the time. The National Rail Enquiries app on my phone seemed to be confirming the reality of trains running again so I left the coach at Oxenholme. It was the live departures and arrivals functionality that had its use here.

There indeed were trains running north from Oxenholme and two Glasgow-bound Virgin Pendolinos appeared before another destined for Edinburgh. That was the one that I wanted and it turned out to be blissfully quiet too after the frenetic journey that had been my lot until then. As long as it lasted, I savoured the experience.

After little while in Edinburgh, I boarded an East Coast HST to get to Pitlochry. Its final destination was Inverness and, though it was well used, the journey was another good one with sunshine appearing north of Edinburgh. While awaiting the service, the train guard seemed overly enthusiastic when it came to moving everyone down the platform, an annoying trait to have in someone else when you want to stay near the front so as to improve the chances of getting a good seat. That was easily forgettable once the train set off though, especially compared to the earlier part of my journey, the main cause of my arriving later at my destination than I had in mind.

The return journey went far smoother. A ScotRail train got me from Pitlochry to Edinburgh without too much sign of overcrowded. Everyone seemed to have a seat though it was a well patronised train. Transpennine Express came up trumps with a six carriage train from Edinburgh to Manchester and that was a peaceful journey too with my having gone to the front carriage for a seat. The only perturbation was a bridge being struck near Preston that caused the service to terminate in Manchester Piccadilly rather than Manchester Airport as scheduled. The last part of my journey to Macclesfield was uneventful if delayed. Getting home slightly later than planned was a minor thing compared to other experiences that I have had.

Whether it is due to my greater awareness of what is happening on the railways due to Twitter or not, there seem to be a lot disruption to trains caused by things external to the railways. Trespassing on the track is but one of these and an animal was struck near Macclesfield this morning, causing delays as you’d expect. When people are involved, it obviously is far more serious and you think of those who have been left after the deceased. Then, there are bridge strikes due to road traffic accidents and problems with level crossings. Cable theft is yet another behaviour that causes so much disruption. All of those should make it clear that lateness of trains is as much in the hands of those of us outside of the railway industry as it does of railway staff. After, you only have to tot up failures of signals, points and overhead electricity supplies to realise how frail our rail system can be. When you consider that, you may be amazed how well it works at all.

A weekend in need of a bank holiday

The last weekend in May usually hosts what is known as the Spring Bank Holiday in the U.K. Due to the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, this didn’t happen this year and two days were added to the first weekend in June instead. My travel on the Jubilee weekend is another tale so I’ll relate experiences from the weekend before.

As it happened, we got scorching sunny weather at the end of May and it seemed to have tempted everyone out on the evidence of my travels to and from Northumberland on the Saturday of the weekend. York was hosting horse-racing too and that ensured that the Transpennine Express service on which I was travelling was crammed with folk.

That left me wondering if a bit of forward planning would have involved booking in longer trains for the extra traffic. However, when I asked them about this on Twitter, I got no answer. That was after my asking about having longer trains on the route for those races. That was answered by saying that they only have sixty trains and they all were in use. There are new trains coming with the planned electrification of the Manchester-Bolton-Preston and Manchester-Leeds-York routes. Let’s hope that they are longer and that the overall number operated by the franchise is enlarged at the same time.

The CrossCountry train that got me from York to Alnmouth too was well used though thankfully not as busy as the one taking me from Manchester to York. The Edinburgh Marathon was the cause this time and prospective runners were chatting to one another with even complete strangers conversing. Their having a common interest must have helped.

The return journey was less frenetic, especially between Alnmouth and York. Some late racegoers still were on the way home from York with some being “well oiled” by their constant refreshment throughout the day. The chatter emanating from some had me wishing that a portable music player was in my possession but it still wasn’t overly unpleasant.

The leg between Manchester and my home town of Macclesfield was the quietest of the lot though having two Northern Rail trains timed to leave at the same time from the same platform seemed a little incompetent. The Hadfield service went first and the Macclesfield train doors were locked until that departed. Though a little inconvenient, one only need imagine the mess caused by inebriated folk catching wrong trains to realise the sense in what was done. Around Congleton, someone was struck by a train earlier on the same evening so that may explain the sub-optimal platform arrangements.

Like many, I had been out and about when so many were doing the same. That so many were using public transport was encouraging and that was at the cost of a quiet getaway. Maybe a weekend first class upgrade should have been considered even with it adding to a fare that already was not inexpensive. Travelling a little earlier in the day might have been cheaper than any upgrade.