On Trains & Buses

Travel news, views & information from Europe & North America by an independent public transport user

Trouble with passenger numbers

Posted on September 5, 2018

Just when it needs some extra help with promotion, things are not going so well in the world of public transport. This past May saw a disastrous timetable changeover that still has its lingering effects at the time of writing. On day strikes are peppering the calendar with the RMT stoppages of Northern services every Saturday in September because of proposed changes in the train conductor role. Other train companies are affected by the same disagreement and it hardly is helping service regularity.

With all of this, is it any surprise that railway passenger growth has stalled and even shows signs of declining? After all, ticket prices continue to rise using what many consider to be the wrong inflation measure. The Retail Price Index applies and the Consumer Price Index always comes up as a suggested replacement. When some have not had salary increases for a long time and they need to commute by rail every working day, it is easy to see why this is an issue.

With those travails, it also is not that difficult why many work from home and it does nothing to help commuter numbers. Admittedly, I am one of those these days and that makes less of a bus or train user than I once was. After all, bus service cuts have taken and their toll and a heftily-priced season ticket would have been in order for one work opportunity. Being able to manage all my affairs from home feels better than alternative of a busy commute and others will relish the extra time for attending to their own family affairs. When you consider how many work on a train or bus while on the way to and from their place of employment, it does not sound like fun.

The stability of the bus network also needs mentioned for councils have been cutting back on subsidised services since the start of the decade. It almost feels like what happened to the railways when branch lines were closed in that when you withdraw one service, it affects others and the downward spiral in service availability and frequency then gets trapped in a vicious circle. For that reason, I do not trust bus services as much as I once so rail travel becomes my choice so long as nothing else affects that.

Even London has not escaped the pattern of falling bus use and network cuts are coming there too though the introduction of Crossrail surely must have an impact as much as the reinstatement of the railway between Edinburgh and Tweedbank had on local bus services. However, commuting and shopping have been sources of demand for bus travel and both are declining with online shopping being to the detriment of retail precincts everywhere. London apparently was unaffected for a long time but even it cannot stay that way.

Any trouble with public transport not only cuts off those who cannot drive but also increases traffic and this also has a knock-on effect on bus service reliability to the point that you wonder if buses need their own dedicated trackways like what has been tried in Edinburgh, Manchester and Cambridge. It all points to poor oversight of and commitment to public transport on the part of a distracted government so change is needed. Trams have escaped my mention here and they remain popular but it is what has happened to bus and train services that highlights the greatest need of attention.

It is little wonder then that nationalisation has reappeared as a proposal though it cannot solve problems on its own and there also is the option of moving to a concession model for public transport with the idea of competition dispatched in favour of integration and usability. That is how it feels in Sweden so the idea might have a future here is it was given a chance. Anything has to be better than the current unstable state of affairs.

Sampling more of the Irish bus network

Posted on September 2, 2018

Because it is my place of birth and upbringing, my experience of using Ireland’s bus system extends over decades. Even so, it only was during my university years that I started to make use of scheduled bus and coach services like the weekend ones on which I acted as fare collector while at university in Cork. There were occasional journeys on Bus Éireann’s route 51 between Charleville and Cork too but it was while I was in Edinburgh that I made more use of buses. Flights to and from Dublin had me travelling between the city’s airport and Heuston train station by one or more buses. That trend continued throughout the first decade of living in Macclesfield.

Within the last decade, family and business matters saw me change to flying in and out of Shannon and Cork instead since it shortened travel times within Ireland. Service 51, noticeably more regular than during my university days in Cork, became a mainstay since it calls at Shannon, Limerick, Charleville on its journeys between Galway and Cork. Other services feature too like services 13 and 14 from Limerick to Newcastlewest or services 226 and 226A between Cork’s airport and its city centre. Service 226 even allowed a quick visit to Kinsale one day that I had time for it; sadly, the day itself was not sunny with grey clouds filling overhead skies and some rain but it was a good thing to do regardless of the weather.

What has inspired this post though is a recent stay in Galway that allowed me to explore Connemara, the Aran Islands and the Clare coastline around Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher. This escapade added more bus routes to my tally with route 923 operated by Irish Citylink from Galway and Clifden numbering among them. The rest were operated by Bus Éireann and my journeys included Expressway service 64 between Knock Airport and Galway, service 350 between Galway, Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher, service 419 between Galway and Maam Cross as well as service 424 between Galway and Rossaveal. Of these, I only mentioned the sections on which I travelled for route 64 goes between Galway and Derry, route 350 goes between Galway and Ennis, route 419 goes between Galway and Clifden and route 424 goes between Galway and Carraroe. All of these got me where I wanted to be though there were delays to my journeys from Knock Airport to Galway and from Oughterard to Galway, they were not in any way critical.

My general experience of the Irish bus network is that services largely run on time and that any buses are comfortable for travelling. For the latter, it helps that coaches are used on many interurban routes even if the practice adds accessibility constraints though wheelchair lifts are available on most if not all vehicles. Delays caused by slow-moving vehicles like tractors are receding and you never can do anything to avoid a passenger falling ill aboard a bus.

What was problematic was finding out about what bus services. While this was easier for Bus Éireann services, private operator offerings proved more challenging to find unless you learned of their existence either by word of mouth or by seeing their vehicles on the road. Some remained obscure such as those of the now-defunct Swilly but such a thing is not so easy now following the actions of Transport for Ireland . For a start, all bus services are to be numbered but the real bonus is that is a journey finder with timetable information. The latter can be accessed by other services too and the Bus Times website is one of those. There is a lot to be said for drilling into an area to find what services are available at a specific location and it proved invaluable for my recent Irish trip. As long as there is the continued availability of such information, planning of any future Irish hill wandering trips becomes that bit easier and it also helps that the Irish bus network does not alter as rapidly as its British counterparts and that it appears to be efficient too.

Evidence of network fragility

Posted on August 26, 2018

Train timetabling hit the news for the wrong reasons in May and the aftermath persists several months later. Major changes planned for December have been postponed until May next year after the problems that hit users of Northern and Thameslink Great Northern. It was a combination of late completion of engineering works, delays to trains cascading from one operator to another and poor administration across the board that caused a multitude of poor experiences like the cancellation of trains on the line between Oxenholme and Windermere. None of this sold the railway at all well and it is easy to say that the transport is ailing under the current government, especially given all the cuts to bus services that have happened since 2010.

There are too many observations that can be made but this entry pertains to a second encounter with Arriva Trains Wales operations on the Cambrian Coast Line this summer. The first already has inspired an earlier entry regarding the lack of air conditioning on a train on a hot day. Such things did not impact things so much the second time around so much as delays to train services.

Having fancied the idea of travelling as far as Pwllheli for quite a while, I finally did just that and went for a walk to the top of Yr Eifl too. The day was sunny so that helped with views of the surrounding scenery. What helped too was that there was enough capacity on trains for comfortable travelling.

This time around, a four carriage train conveyed me from Wolverhampton to Machynlleth where it divided with two of the carriages continuing to Aberyswyth and another two going all the way to Pwllheli. What you need to do is ensure that you ensure that you were on the correct part of the train and that is complicated by the fact that it turns around at Shrewsbury. That meant that I was on the wrong part so I needed to move to the right one and that was busier than where I had been ensconced.

There was a delay on the way too but that had less of an impact on my plans than my overestimating how long it takes to ascend and descend Yr Eifl, a feat that took me two hours so I abandoned any thoughts of walking back to Pwllheli in favour of a return bus journey from Llithwaen. A late train delayed my departure from Pwllheli but you cannot depend on that for allowing extra time and a late train is better than a cancelled one; there had been some of those on the day I was travelling.

Because of someone falling ill on a train earlier in the day and a decision to cut down waiting time at Harlech, my departure was delayed by around forty minutes. With a single-track line having only so many passing places for trains, it is very vulnerable to such things and one delay can have a heavy impact on the timeliness of others. There is one of these passing points between Machynlleth and Caersws where I have been held up on past journeys while Tywyn is another. Being held on a train stopped at a station is not so bad but when it is stationary out in the middle of nowhere, that is a very different feeling.

The length of the delay was another concern especially when I needed to catch the last train of the day from Wolverhampton to Macclesfield. This is the sort of thing that drops in ideas like changing at Shrewsbury to get to Stockport from where a taxi gets used to complete the journey. The possibility of a change at Machynlleth is another but that often is not the case as it was in my case though it can take time to join up two trains to make one with four carriages. Splitting it again at Shrewsbury does not help timeliness either and it reduced capacity for everyone on board so I questioned the sense of the manoeuvre. Thankfully, I made my intended connection despite all this.

Handily, I split my tickets so that there was one set between Macclesfield and Wolverhampton and another between Wolverhampton and Pwllheli so that made a delay repay application a little easier even if meant that a train conductor might not have been as aware of my plans. The other catch is that I used the Virgin Trains app so day return tickets are not as accessible for capturing in a screenshot like ordinary off-peak return ones. There has been no reply yet but there may be a backlog and I already have a £10 voucher to use from a complaint about the previous journey along the Cambrian Coast Line. Patience is needed sometimes but the experiences will not stop my continuing to explore this part of Wales.

Update 2018-08-28: Yesterday, I got an email response saying that the delay/repay scheme only applies when the railways are the cause of the delay. Since it was due to a passenger, there is no compensation due to me. Because of the sum of money that is involved, I am going to leave the matter to rest.

A train journey in need of air conditioning

Posted on August 1, 2018

Last month, I embarked on a day trip to Barmouth from where I went on an out and back hike that reacquainted me with sights along the Mawddach estuary. This summer, as I have remarked elsewhere , has been exceptional and you could say that 2018 only has had two seasons thus far: winter and summer. Spring scarcely came at all.

The day of my Welsh outing came warm so I was glad of any shade while out walking. Being inside of a train should have helped but for one or more class 158 units without functioning air conditioning. There are not enough windows to compensate for this as I also found on a Transpennine Express journey between Leeds and Manchester in the days before the current class 185 units.

There were other problems too and the arrival of a two-carriage train in Wolverhampton was a foretaste of a less than full train schedule. Two additional carriages were added in Shrewsbury, resolving the previous crush. At Machynlleth, those extra carriages were taken off before the train continued to Aberystwyth with passengers for Barmouth and beyond needing to change to a train and a coach was going directly to Barmouth too.

That onward connection was on a train without working air conditioning so it was just as well that I was not going all the way to Pwllheli on it. It may have been that this also was the train that took me the whole way from Barmouth to Shrewsbury. The two-car unit was not augmented with an additional two carriages in Machynlleth because of a cancellation. That made for a very crowded journey in a hot train with less than happy folk on board.

Still, the situation got people talking and I was lucky enough to have a seat given that the single-track railway made for delays when a passing train was running late. That happened on both legs of the journey but people were more bothered by the stop in a crowded warm train on the way to Shrewsbury where we transferred onto a better ventilated one. It was a trip to the seaside for many and some presence of mind may have made such an outing more pleasant for them.

Arriva is finished with its Welsh franchise in October so you have to wonder if the company is as focussed on the operation as it could be, especially when staff shortages cause train cancellations on a sunny Saturday when many are travelling. In contrast, the CrossCountry trains that I used between Macclesfield and Wolverhampton were kept cool with even messages celebrating England’s World Cup quarter-final victory appearing on matrix displays in the evening. Virgin too was doing the same but any celebratory notions were tempered soon enough by their subsequent semi-final and third-place play-off defeats.

Returning to Welsh railway matters, Abellio takes over in the autumn and is promising a lot of much-needed investment after Arriva’s steady-state franchise. After all, better trains are needed in many places and long-distance journeys need longer trains too. There is much to improve so I hope that promises can be kept.

Forthcoming Sunday bus service reductions in Derbyshire

Posted on April 20, 2018

After yesterdays post about how Cheshire East’s bus network has changed within the last few weeks caused a spike in the number of visitors to this website, I now am broaching a similar subject regarding Derbyshire. Details of recent service changes and some forthcoming ones are available on the county council’s website but they do not extend until the end of May when the reductions that I am describing will take place. Details of these are scattered around the Derbyshire bus service information portal .

Because I often go for walks in the Peak District, some of the affected bus services mean more to me than others because I have used them at some point. For instance, some of the ones facing Sunday service withdrawal service 66 between Buxton and Chesterfield, service 173 between Bakewell and Castleton as well as service 442 between Buxton and Ashbourne. In addition, service 61 between Buxton and Glossop together with service 170 between Bakewell and Chesterfield will go from an hourly frequency to a near two-hourly one. All of these could be used by walkers so I am surprised by the timing of the reductions because we are facing into the summertime when more would be lured out of doors and the year’s busy holiday periods are ahead of us.

There are other services that I may not have used that are seeing Sunday service withdrawals that affect those that regularly use them. These include services 15A between Dronfield and Marsh Lane, service 16A between Dronfield and Chesterfield, service between Ashbourne and Matlock, service 140 between Matlock and Alfreton as well as service 217 between Matlock and Chatsworth. It is worth pointing out that these losses all come as part of a wider collection of changes around the same time so it is not just Sunday services that are affected.

Some services such as on route 212 between Bonsall and Derby or route 449 between Illam and Bakewell face complete withdrawal but these were very infrequent services. Evening service reductions on Chesterfield town service 39 and evening service withdrawal on route 55A between Alfreton and Chesterfield are coming around the end of May too.

Other changes around the same time are not so drastic. Tweaked timetables are to be introduced for the following services: route 1A between Ripley and Aldercar, service 63A between Chesterfield and Matlock, route 91 between Chesterfield and Holymoorside, service 171 between Bakewell and Middleton, route 178 between Bakewell, Over Haddon and Monyash, route 218 between Bakewell and Sheffield, Pronto route between Chesterfield and Nottingham, Swift route between Derby, Ashbourne and Uttoxeter, Transpeak route between Manchester, Buxton and Derby.

Other routes see operator changes such as Matlock routes M1 and M4 while these also see the withdrawal of Saturday services. Service 231 between Alfreton and Pinxton, service 149 between Alfreton and Sutton, Clowne town service 75 together with services 73 and 74 between Clowne and Crystal Peaks are others that see their operators changing though there is to be no timetable change in either case. That is not the case for services 26 and 26A between Crystal Peaks and Kiveton Park, service 48 between Brampton and Clay Cross or service 49 between Clay Cross and Bolsover but those changes are relatively minor.

There is one good piece of news in all of this since Moorlands Connect is to return at the start of June. In some other places like Lancashire where all bus service subsidies were removed, there is some restoration of services but it probably will take a change of political will to halt the ongoing decline in bus services. Without that, you are not going to get more people depending on buses to get them around and even minor changes like what is coming in June on Arriva service 29 and 29A between Burton and Leicester may worry some until they see all is well.

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