A New Appearance

If you have not been here for a while, you should see signs of a refresh. The old design used code that stopped working so the website had the appearance of having gone offline. That has been replaced by what you find here now and all appears to be working well so far.

Though there were continual updates to a lot of the content on here, 2016 still was a quieter year on here. Other things in my life took up more of my attention so longer entries were absent. Now that we are in 2017, the big task that dominated last year is behind me though there will be smaller ones to do in addition to my day job. The upheaval cause by bereavement still makes its present felt.

2016 also was a big year in world news with Britain sadly and narrowly choosing to leave the European Union in a referendum and the U.S.A. electing Donald Trump as its president. Both of these mean that uncertain times that lie ahead of us and the impact on public transport is as yet unknown.

Still, I did get to sampling train and bus services on much needed breaks away from a frantic everyday life. These included Austrian and Norwegian train services as well as Mallorcan bus services. They may provide inspiration for entries on here yet. The same may be said for the Swiss train network and Icelandic bus services too and these were experienced during 2015.

Otherwise, there are sure to be developments in British and Irish public transportation. After all, Bus Éireann is in financial trouble at the moment and needs to restructure its operations in order to survive. What that means for bus services in Ireland has yet to be seen and trade unions are unhappy too. Then, there is the long running saga of industrial relations problems in Southern Railway that have made life a misery for so many in the southeast of England. GHA Coaches went bust and the affects of that business collapse still are being felt across much of England and Wales. Such developments mean that there always is a need for some public transport advocacy too. Maybe it is time for a little more of that in these testing times.

Along the route of the X1

When I first moved to Macclesfield, there was a bus service running from Manchester all the way to Derby that passed through the town. It was called the X1 and First operated it under contract to three councils: Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Before First won the contract, Stagecoach ran it and nearly made it a commercial prospect too. In fact, it had been in existence at least since the Crosville/National Bus Company days and it wasn’t a commercial success even then.

When First ran the service, they used a mixture of coaches and buses and their timetable was a limited one with only four to five departures each way a day and they weren’t all that useful between Macclesfield and Stockport either since the times nearly coincided with the similarly rare 392 journeys to the same destination. There was an additional school service operated by Arriva between Macclesfield and Leek on Monday to Friday mornings too that some could use for commuting to work; getting home by bus at the end of the working day involved either an early finish or a long wait, hardly an ideal state of affair but the successor 108 timetable is even less workable than the old one was.

After First lost the contract, Trent Barton took it over and the service number became 108, one that covers part of the route even today. While I cannot tell you which depot was used to operate the route, the driver changeover took place in Macclesfield bus station so if the bus running in one direction was late, the one going the other way was made late and it hardly was the best state of affairs for maintaining on time running of buses.

Macclesfield to Stockport Bus Travel Improvements

2003 and 2004 saw Cheshire County Council spent money getting in some new buses for subsidised services. Seeing the cuts that are being made now makes those times a distant memory and I reckon it might be U.K. government cash that made this possible. Some of those buses were used by Arriva to operate an enhanced Macclesfield to Stockport bus services using the 392 and 393 routes that we still have today. These buses were stationed in Macclesfield around the time of the opening of the current bus station and then moved to a Manchester depot after that.

Both buses were used to offer an hourly timetable from Monday to Saturday instead of a much less frequent one seven days a week. That’s the basis that we still have today though those buses have been with different operators since Arriva lost the contract in 2008. One went to High Peak for an improved Macclesfield to Prestbury while the other went to GHA as a backup for the main buses on their routes serving Northwich, Knutsford, Wilmslow and Altrincham.

In their place, BakerBus had to bring their own buses when taking over from Arriva around four or five years ago. The timetable remained very similar though, apart maybe from re-branding it The Shuttle. Their tenure in charge of the route is coming to an end now with High Peak set to run it from next month. It will be interesting to see if their takeover means using older buses again. The 393 has been relegated to only a few journeys a day with the 392 becoming the main route for the new service. Timekeeping will be another matter to watch with the new timetable because the alternating 392 and 393 routes left some slack for keeping buses running on time because the 393 goes along the A523 via Adlington and 392 goes around by Bollington and Pott Shrigley.

Breakup

Those 392/393 improvements meant the end of a Manchester to Derby service that went via Leek and Ashbourne. Now the course of the route was broken in four on all days apart from Sunday: Manchester to Stockport, Stockport to Macclesfield, Macclesfield to Ashbourne, Ashbourne to Derby. The very regular 192 does the first section and the second is served by the 392/393. The third one is served by Clowes 108 service, a rump of what went before. Their use of older Mercedes midi-buses appears to be a cost-saving measure and I have seen these running without ticket machines either, hardly an encouraging sign. The last section is well served with the SW1 service operated by Trent Barton with only a few Monday to Wednesday contracted services run by Arriva Midlands.

The Monday to Saturday frequency of each of these is varied. The 192 offers a 10 minute one, the highest of the bunch. It is as good as hourly for the 392/393 and SW1. The lowest of these is the 108 with only a few services each way a day and it has not escaped spending cuts either.

In fact, what brought the whole story of the X1 route to mind in the first place is a change that is coming to the 108 service. Until the weekend after the coming one, we have evening journeys such as a 18:15 from Ashbourne to Macclesfield and a 19:10 going all of the other way. The last journey from Ashbourne leaves at 20:20 and terminates in Leek. There was a Monday to Friday morning school service that got canned and the loss of the aforementioned Friday and Saturday evening journeys is next, kicking in from March 8th. It’s a far cry from a full X1 that I used to get from Stockport to Macclesfield one Saturday around a decade ago. Not only has a coherent long distance bus route option been dismantled but you have to wonder if things could get even worse than they are. After all, I have seen Clowes operate the 108 using a bus with no ticket machine and they are being left to carry on for now.

With all this dismantling, a Manchester to Derby bus travel option effectively was removed. All those changes mean that it is far from an attractive way to go anymore unless you plan on stopping off here, there and everywhere. This is nice countryside so that would be no bad idea but there’s no way of having a teaser now like the TransPeak service.

There Once Was a Sunday Service…

Even the Sunday and bank holiday route of the 108 meant a change at Leek with operators changing at the end of every council contract. BakerBus and then D&G were the custodians of the northern section while TM Travel ran the southern one. There were three departures each way and the two halves awaited each other at Leek bus station. Sadly, that service now is no more and I seem to remember a reasonable level of usage when I used it too.

The only existing remnant now goes between Derby and Ashbourne with only two return journeys extending as far as Leek, a loss of one from what went before. The service is the Sunday and bank holiday SW1 and Trent Barton is the operator. There are five journeys going each way, an improvement for the residents of Ashbourne and nearby Mayfield gains a few of the ones that don’t go as far as Mayfield too. It’s nowhere near as regular as the Monday to Saturday service but it’s good to see that it continues, which is more than could be said for the Sunday service along the rest of the route.

Any Sign of Better Times Ahead?

It seems that there has been a mixture of gains and losses along the length of the former X1 route with Sunday services decimated and the section between Macclesfield, Leek and Ashbourne seeing a reduced service on other days of the week. The continuing near hourly Macclesfield to Stockport bus service from Monday to Saturday is a bright spot though amongst the other gloom. Whenever there are bus services withdrawn, you have to ask if there ever can be a chance of some sort of return in the future. As gloomy as things appear now, it yet may surprise us though the “lost decade” isn’t over yet.

Changes that happened while I wasn’t looking

Out of curiosity, I decided to explore the Megabus website for the U.K. and it surprised me to see how low some of their prices were. Apparently, there’s a seat sale on at the moment too so that may explain some of those less than £5. However, it’s easy to see the attraction of what aren’t so infrequent services from Manchester to places such as Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow and London. With the recent increases in train fares, even a ticket costing less than £20 has to look tempting. Is that why the though of savouring their services to see what they’re like has entered my head?

While checking out express coach services, I also decided to take a look at what Greyhound offers to the U.K. traveller these days and it looks as if things have expanded beyond the London services to the south coast of England with which they started. For instance, regular services between Cardiff and Swansea are now on offer with the frequency making them look like the Welsh version of the Scottish Citylink service between Edinburgh and Glasgow or the National Express one between Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. It looks a good move forward and I hope that it’s attracting a good level custom. Also coming within the Greyhound fold is the overnight service between London and Scotland (Hamilton, Glasgow, Edinburgh) that First Glasgow took over from Silver Choice. All the while, it’s south of England tally of destinations increases with Winchester being a recent addition to those like Portsmouth, Poole, Southampton, Bournemouth, Fareham, Ringwood (for the New Forest) and the Isle of Wight. All in all, Greyhound is growing in Britain so there must be some success being had somewhere. Maybe the attractive prices might have something to do with it because I did glimpse a few going for £1 plus booking fee.

All in all, it looks as if express coach travel might be on the up and it would not be a bad thing if a decent network built up in England and Wales, even if it meant travelling with different operators on a single journey. The looming increases in train fares are presenting an opportunity and I wonder if anyone is out there waiting to take it. Now mightn’t be a bad time to spend a little longer travelling in order to save a little cash when it is a scarcer commodity than used to be case a few years ago.

Has First really caught the express service coach bug?

Some may complain that it has the feel of a rough and ready engineering firm that you’d find in a remote corner of the Britain or Ireland but First have had a sizable presence in the express coach market alongside their more mainstream bus and train operations for a while now and you cannot maintain that by being sloppy. In the U.K., there are National Express contracts and the overnight London-Scotland services acquired from Silver Choice earlier this year. In addition to the latter, there also to seem to moves afoot to steal clothes from Stagecoach Express around Glasgow. Crossing to Ireland, there’s Aircoach and I wonder if that operation has taught them a thing or too. Continuing west, over the Atlantic in fact, their efforts to grab a piece of the American yellow schoolbus market brought with them the iconic U.S. express coach operator, Greyhound. With the creation of BoltBus, it is clear that things haven’t stopped there with the American operations and expanding in the U.K. is never something to which they are averse either. The result of that seems to be the introduction of the Greyhound brand over here for services operating between London and England’s southern coast. On that evidence (spotted in today’s Guardian), it looks as if the beleaguered National Express may have yet another woe coming its way with one of its contractors turning to (further) competition. It already has to contend with Megabus and you do have to ask if First is seeing a future bereft of the debt-laden operator following its moves towards a NEG takeover bid. Staying with the topic of questions, the arrival of Greyhound does leave me wondering if those overnight Anglo-Scottish services may yet carry the brand. Well, I might have started with that one…

Why reserve a seat if unsure of your time of travel?

Sadly, those insulting thetrainline.com ads have reappeared. Personally, I like the flexibility of just turning up at a train station, buying a ticket for my journey and going on my way. In fact, I like that idea so much that I am willing to pay for it most of the time (saying that, when the cost passes £60, savings are often sought). Being called an idiot for wanting to things in this way is certainly not something that I appreciate and I can next to guarantee that the said company will not be getting my custom, at least not directly.

Apart from those appalling posters, another thing that brings the whole matter of Internet bookings to mind is my travelling on a train south from Aviemore a few weeks back. Many seats were reserved but most of these weren’t occupied. That may have been just as well for sake of travelling comfort but it prompted the thought in my mind as to whether those reservations were a “just in case” measure. The next step in musings has me wondering if a world where there was more more frugality in the booking of seats might be a better one. However, there is also the possibility that a decline in seat booking would result in less frequent services and shorter trains, something that could increase seat reservations and pop things back where they were before anyway. It all makes a seat reservation less useful than it ought to be. In reality, it is probably no bad thing to sit in such a spot until disturbed by the rightful occupant. After all, you only need to move away when asked. It may not make things user friendly for those reserving seats or be the sort of practice that is encouraged but it might be a minor irritation in the broad scheme of things.

While the railways still cut some slack and that is good when it comes to convenience, other modes of travel are far from being like this and I hope that the railways don’t follow suit. For one thing, they already compensate for a less than comprehensive express coach network in England that makes seat bookings a necessity. Wales now has its Trawscambria long distance bus network with Ireland and Scotland having none too shabby networks provided by Citylink, Ulsterbus and Bus Éireann. Airlines are run on a far tighter footing and you only need to note Ryanair’s closure of airport check in desks in favour of the online option and Aer Lingus’ passenger operated baggage check in facilities to see what I mean. They also overbook their aircraft which is not so nice but the expectation is that not everyone will make a flight. If the same sort of thinking started to pervade the railways, then that would be a very disappointing development.

Saying all of that, I don’t object to there being a need for bookings on services running at busy times. In fact, if you are tied to a train by an advance purchase ticket, then reserving a seat makes sense. For more flexible tickets (Off Peak and Anytime returns come to mind), the logic of that argument may not be so strong, hence my appeal to only reserve your place when you are absolutely certain of travelling. Yes, I realise that stuff happens but there’s no need to devalue the seat booking by not turning up because it was only done just in case.