A Changeover in the Scottish Borders

Over the weekend, I was in Scotland for a few days and went for a few walks through the hills around Peebles and Broughton. Because, I had based myself in Edinburgh, I was making use of the X62 between there and Peebles and checking on my options before I left home revealed a change that happened last month.

Now that First has been released from the obligations previously imposed on it, it has been retrenching in the Scottish bus market. This has seen it exiting East Lothian with Lothian Buses setting up two subsidiaries to replace the withdrawn services, Lothian Country Buses and East Coast Buses. In the coming weeks, the former is set to be merged with the latter and some service improvements are coming too.

Within the last month, First also exited the Scottish Borders with West Coast Motors taking over their operations. This has resulted in the formation of new company is called Borders Buses and has taken over all routes previously operated in the area by First. For now, timetables and fares are unchanged but Borders Buses can change things as it sees fit once it has settled into its new role. Some buses have been hired in from First until replacements are introduced though there already are some new white vehicles operating under the new fleet name. In addition, some buses from Perryman’s Buses also see service on Borders Buses routes and that is another part of the West Coast Motors group so the Campbeltown based parent company is not new to this part of Scotland.

The result of all the changes is that West Coast Motors has moved its interests from Argyll and Bute, Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands not only into the Borders but also into Northumberland. It has come quite a way from its Argyll heartland so it will be interesting to see how it goes now given that the recently reinstated Borders railway between Tweedbank and Edinburgh is having an impact.

Update on 2017-04-20:
Buses magazine reports that the operations of both Perryman’s Buses and Borders Buses are to be merged with the latter name persisting. So far, there is little sign of that apart from legal lettering on buses showing the same postal address.

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.

Additional Services for the Summer in Scotland

During the Jubilee bank holiday weekend, I popped up to Scotland for a few days and, in so doing, learned more about some extra train and coach services that are laid on for the summer up there. Of course, that wasn’t my real reason for going. The chance of getting some dry weather while sampling more of the country’s scenery was the actual motivation.

A copy of ScotRail‘s Insight on-train magazine alerted me to the return of a direct Sunday return train service between Edinburgh and Oban. It leaves the former at 08:10 and arrives at 12:06 having called at Haymarket, Linlithgow, Polmont and Falkirk along the way. It then leaves Oban at 17:11 and arrives back in Edinburgh at 21:09. It hasn’t started yet though and you’ll need to wait until the 24th of this month for the first running. It then continues until August 26th and the return fare is a not that unreasonable £36.

Scottish Citylink offer extra services for the summer season and, unlike ScotRail’s Edinburgh-Oban service, most of these are available now. Ones that stand out for me are service 913 from Edinburgh to Fort William, service 978 from Edinburgh to Oban and service 973 from Dundee to Oban. The 913 and 973 add useful travel connections around Loch Tay as well as adding to the service level west of Crianlarich.

While on the subject of Scottish Citylink, year round services also see their service level increased. For instance, there is a 978 service via Tyndrum between Glasgow and Oban and a 975 shuttle between the latter and Tyndrum where coaches between Glasgow and Fort William are met. Speaking of the the latter, they are expanded for the summer too as are their continuations to the Isle of Skye. While speaking about West Highland coach services, it is worth mentioning that the Glasgow-Campbeltown 926 service is operating as five services each way daily; three was all we got not so long ago.

Though these are the summertime service increases that stand out for me. For instance, there are extra ones running between the Scotland’s Central Belt and Inverness as I discovered on Monday morning. Also, Edinburgh’s festival season in August sees extra late night services between Glasgow and Edinburgh and there are events like T in the Park too. Well, it’s worth spending some time on Citylink’s website to see what’s available because I only may be scratching the surface here.

Apart from the above, there may be other summer only services on offer of which I have no knowledge and Caber Coaches’ service 93 around Loch Tay on Saturdays is one such find. If any come my way, I’ll get them noted because summer passes so quickly. With some of the ones that we have seen, there are those who may see that as a good thing but I’ll reserve my judgement.

Disruption in Scotland

Scotland still is catching the brunt of storm force winds and heavy rain as I write this. Bridges are shut (Tay, Erskine and Forth) and public transport services heavily affected. West Coast Motors are not running buses in Oban and Bute; the latter being due to a power failure. Sticking with the west of Scotland, the last Scottish Citylink departure for Fort William has been cancelled and that tells its own story. Glasgow and Edinburgh too have seen service changes as operators struggle with the weather. Even with that, most services seem to be running and keeping an eye on announcements from the likes of First Glasgow or Lothian Buses would be no bad idea.

Trains do not seem to have got too badly though there were some line closures around Glasgow earlier. Nevertheless, tomorrow will see the aftermath of what is battering Scotland so things may not be operating as smoothly as usually is the case. After all, there has been some structural damage done to buildings and infrastructure with a wall falling on a car in Aberdeen. At times like these, the only hope that can be expressed is that everyone is safe.

Update: National Rail Enquiries have on their website a page describing train running in the current adverse weather conditions. It looks as if there is more disruption than what I suggested above, such as between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. There’s quite a list of cancellations there with services such as the Caledonian Sleeper from Fort William and local ones around Glasgow being examples.

Update 2012-01-03: Yet another storm has hit Scotland again and with much the same effects too.