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 This has seen it exiting East Lothian with Lothian Buses setting up two subsidiaries to replace the withdrawn services, Lothian Country Buses and East Coast Buses.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.

Arriva seeing some success in Northumberland

With the environment within which bus services are being provided at the moment, success can feel very far away with local councils like North Yorkshire and Cornwall pondering cuts to their funding. Also, Arriva is not a company that you would associated very closely to the term either and that probably follows from the retrenchment that I have seen in Cheshire over the last decade.

Nevertheless, they are claiming that changes implemented to their services in Northumberland during September 2012 have seen good results. Also, there would seem to be conversations going on between them and passengers too and there never is a bad thing. The result is a set of changes that came into place within the last few weeks and today.

Of particular interest to me is the X15 between Newcastle, Alnwick and Berwick-upon-Tweed since it follows part of the Northumberland coastline that I have enjoyed exploring. There is only change to its timetable and it is a positive one: the 19:43 Monday to Friday departure from Newcastle is getting extended as far as Alnwick, bucking a certain trend that sees the decline of evening bus services in rural areas.

Service 35 between Morpeth, North Seaton and Newbiggin has enjoyed success and is seeing accompaniment by the 35A that terminates in Woodhorn instead of Newbiggin. Between the two of these, the Monday to Saturday daytime service frequency will become four buses per hour (one every fifteen minutes) between Morpeth and North Seaton; it is hourly at other times, including all day on Sundays. Also, double decker buses are set to be introduced too and that’s a sure sign of good patronage even if they are refurbished and not new acquisitions.

Related services 30/30A (North Seaton to Ashington to Linton) and 34 (Ashington to Bedlington) see changes too. The former is now an hourly off-peak Monday to Saturday service with its last service in the early afternoon making it more of a shopping service for those needing to such trips by bus. The latter gets enhanced to give four journeys each way a day on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday to Saturday with Wednesday seeing three each way. Again, like the 30/30A, the 34 has all the appearance of a service for shopping trips with its early afternoon stopping point. Extensions to Blyth have been withdrawn though so careful use of onward connections from Bedlington.

Travelsure‘s Amble town service 471 is set to be complemented by Arriva journeys early and late in the day from Monday to Friday. This means two journeys before 09:00 and one after 18:10, giving coverage for a larger part of the day.

The last set of routes face relatively minor changes and these are the X20 (Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Ashington to Amble), X21 (Newcastle to Newbiggin) and X22 (Newcastle to Ashington). With the X20, the first journey of the day from Newcastle is set  to run 15 minutes earlier for better timekeeping. The 20 now sees four journeys each going around by Hadston Square that it didn’t before. These were added at the request of residents on a six month trial basis and I hope it goes well for them. Service X21 is seeing minor changes such as a change of terminus in Newbiggin for evening and Sunday journeys. One journey is withdrawn for the X22 and another retimed. The Monday to Friday 07;13 from Bedlington to Ashington is the casualty because of low usage and the Monday to Friday 07:53 from Newcastle becomes the 07:48 instead.

Thankfully, there are not many service reductions in all of this and that is good news in itself. That there are enhancements is even better and is the sort of development of which more is needed these days. Hopefully, Arriva can build on its recent good fortune and make bus usage better for everyone.

Update 2014-08-11: Service 30 is operated by Phoenix Taxi, Bus and Coach now and is hourly from mid morning to early afternoon and those extra service 471 journeys around Amble appear to have been withdrawn too.

Recent changes to bus services in Northumberland

Northumberland’s bus service have seen big changes within the last few months so I have decided to highlight them here. Unfortunately, it only was reshaping this website in recent weeks that alerted me to what has happened. Ideally, I’d like to share the information before any changes have taken place so it’s a case of better late than never…

The main recipients of the upheaval have been users of longer distance bus services through the county. The ones that are no more are as follows:

  • 501 Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed via the coast
  • 505 Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed via A1
  • 518 Newcastle to Alnwick

The first two of these ran via the A1 to Alnwick before taking their different routes north from there while the latter ran by the coast to take in places such as Amble, Warkworth and Alnmouth. Now, they have been replaced by two services:

The first of these essentially is a renumbering of the old 505 where the second is an amalgamation of the 518 and the 501. That makes the latter a very slow service since it takes four hours to get the length of its route. It is an hourly service with not every service extending north of Alnwick and that part of the route hasn’t lost its daily hourly service. The X15 takes less time to do its route but it still in no quick service since the train does the same distance in around 45 minutes and it takes more than double that (nearly two and a half hours in fact). Sunday frequency now is two hourly and it doesn’t extend beyond Alnwick like it does on other days of the week when it’s the extensions north of Alnwick virtually are two hourly on a service that is hourly on the southern section.

There is one other change that arrived later than the others, coming on the very first day of this month as opposed to the middle of the previous one, September 16th as it happened. It now looks as if the creation of the X18 partially removed the need for the former 410 Alnwick to Bamburgh via Beadnell and 411 Beadnell to Berwick-upon-Tweed via Bamburgh services because those services finished at the end of September. What began running on October 1st was the 418, a new service that operates Monday to Saturday between Alnwick to Belford service that goes via Beadnell and Bamburgh. The timetable shows a service that has two journeys going the full length of its route on all its days of operation and an extra Belford to Craster return journey from Monday to Friday. Looking at how it compares to the X18, I am left wondering how it got retained but that I suppose that argument applied to the former 401 and 411 services too. Local needs are important so who am I to question what has been retained. So long as folk know what’s there for them, that’s the most important thing.

With all this upheaval, one has to wonder what advantage comes from it. There is one though: connections to places like Bamburgh and Craster from Alnmouth train station have become more frequent although they still aren’t perfect. You still have to cross reference train and bus times to get them to work or enlist the services of Traveline. Otherwise, route changes like the ones that have been implemented do need good communication and I hope that has happened given that the telling of folk about bus services is far from ideal at the best of times. Something tells me that the changes have needed time to bed in and I hope that things are settling down now and with no loss in ridership too.

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.

A Double-edged Sword?

One thing that we’re never told about those magical white Christmases that we’re often sold is that there’s a darker side to them too. Just ask anyone trying to fly before Christmas this year and they may have a thing to say about the weather that we saw.

What visited Heathrow and Gatwick on the last Saturday before Christmas Day caused enough disruption but it was the repeated showerings of snow that caused havoc at Dublin’s airport. All that was needed was a single hefty shower and runaways were shut for several hours. The result was many panicky travellers with some booking ferry crossings as a backup plan.

Rail travel became tricky as points suffered in the cold weather with many needing defrosting. It didn’t matter whether it was Euston station or Heuston station in Dublin because delays and cancellations were made more likely; London saw more cancellations than Dublin, it has to be said. Then, London Midland train passengers were to discover how it felt to be crammed into a smaller than usual train because two couldn’t be joined together due to frozen couplers. Special timetables with lower service frequencies saw introduction in Wales, Merseyside and Scotland because of the conditions.

Buses in the south of England saw enough disruption to set Twitter alight with a multitude of status updates. That wasn’t all because the same comments applied to Lancashire, Yorkshire, Northumberland and Wales. Seeing the flurries of updates was enough to remind me of the action of snow blizzards.

All of the above information provision was heartening to see but not everyone was as good at keeping passengers up to date. For instance, I spent several hours in a plane, diverted from Dublin, sat on the tarmac in Shannon and the lack of speed in making anything happen was enough to try your patience. Decisiveness and responsiveness weren’t characteristics of the experience and it didn’t help that the I had to return to a snowy Dublin when my final destination wouldn’t have been far from Shannon anyway; it was nearer than Dublin anyway. If buses and trains did this type of thing, you could foresee uproar…

All in all, the whole experience makes me appreciate the service offered by bus and train operators all the more and neither Dublin Bus or Irish Rail left me down on the day in question anyway. My observations and experiences of what the snow did this year have me wondered why I have been pondering outings to savour the snowy hills of Scotland and Wales during a spell of cold weather. It’s no wonder that I have been sticking to enjoying what’s close at hand when snow visits.

This is our second really cold winter in a row and my only hope is that lessons are being learnt. One climate scientist has suggested we are in a run of a few of these so we all needed to be doing some learning, myself included. With regards to dreams of white Christmases, we need to live in the real world and that’s even when somewhat surreal weather comes our way like it has done this year. Let’s hope that everyone stays safe and that the stranded get to their intended destinations as soon as possible.