On Trains & Buses

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

Better Times in Ireland

Posted on December 1, 2022

Bus Éireann Expressway coach, Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, Éire

During the year, I managed to go to Ireland several times. The first was in March when I made a day trip to Dublin. This was my first trip to Ireland following the onset of the pandemic and there was some apprehension involved. However, I needed to get over there to sort out a matter as well as making another step on a return to some sort of normality.

Face mask wearing was starting to slip but still was enforced on aircraft while being mandated at airports. Airports were quiet too though a delay at security clearance in Manchester made for the only run to the gate that I ever needed to do there. Dublin Express connect me with the city centre on busy vehicles, the cause being a reduced service. Aside from that, all worked well and the airport delays of the summer lay ahead of us.

After the confidence-building day trip to Dublin, a longer trip beckoned. That was about tending to more business, completing what lay unfinished from the day trip and other things that needed doing or starting. Flights took me to Shannon and from Cork where things still felt very quiet, and mask wearing was mandated, if only enforced on board aircraft.

The majority of bus and train passengers had dispensed with mask wearing as much as in the England. Remaining more cautious, I persisted and still do so. Aside from any delays, everything was returning to a normal level of service and I got everywhere that I wanted to go. Aside from local services, cashless payments were not only accepted but often were the only way to pay. The exceptions were Local Link services and local services operated by Bus Éireann where the TFI Go app does contactless ticketing, although some bus drivers can be a bit odd about this as I discovered.

The app discovery happened on a journey up to Killaloe, and came in useful for the way back to Limerick from nearby Ballina. Aside from these, Newport, Killarney, Adare and Newcastlewest all featured on my comings and goings. One lesson that I had to learn is that extra time is needed for the connection with the Local Link service to Charleville from Newcastlewest. The express coach service may be late and the Local Link one may not wait for you. Since it was a rainy day, it was just as well that I was able to meet up with my brother because my plans were otherwise disrupted, unless I managed to get a taxi. Getting a soaking while residing somewhere that you had not planned on being, was no help either.

After things working well on my April trip, I embarked on another at the end of May that extended into June. No trains that I used had onboard catering, but rail travel often feels civilised for longer journeys, so long as trains do not fill up with sports supporters. While there was trouble with outbound journeys from Dublin airport due to lack of security staff, my inbound journey was not affected by this. Connection times for my planned train to Tralee were tight because it needs a city crossing. By then though, Dublin Express had increased their service level so that vehicles did not feel as full as on my March day trip.

Otherwise, my experiences were not dissimilar from my April trip, aside from the added reduction of the mask mandate. On flights, that felt a little uncomfortable, but there were no health consequences. My base in Tralee made journeys to Killarney and around the Dingle peninsula more than feasible. If the weather had played ball more than it did, it would have been a distracting time of business and leisure activities like my trip to Limerick was.

August saw me enjoy a holiday in Ireland with bases in Killarney and Cork. The same solidity of the service offering allowed me to make the most of the opportunity. There were timetable restrictions that contained my hiking trips, yet it is possible to work around these. Vehicle tracking could make a fool of one while awaiting an older vehicle so patient is needed if one is not to get stranded. Otherwise, Kenmare, Bantry, Clogheen, Kinsale and Cobh featured as I went here and there using the same knowledge that I had gained on preceding trips. This was a memorable time for all the right reasons and the weather was cooperative, if really starting to heat up near the end.

The last trip of the year encountered mixed weather and shorter hours of daylight, but transportation worked to the same level of success as before. This was in marked contrast to the strikes bedevilling its British counterpart. That make the business trip as much an escape from pessimism as anything else. It also introduced me to Farranfore airport, a quiet place where not much was open when I first arrived. That changed as the time to check in approached. Flying from Kerry to Manchester left me with an impression that this an alternative worth keeping in mind, even if the schedule is limited to certain days of the week and transport connections are more restricted.

In summary, 2022 became a year when I was freer to explore my own country and public transport did not let me down. There was business to do as well and that remains ongoing. More trips should happen in 2023, and I may start to contemplate other shores as well.

Strikes

Posted on November 30, 2022

Since the summer, our lives have been beset by various ongoing industrial actions possibly caused by pay constraints and the rise in the cost of living. There is one at Royal Mail that seems set to affect the Christmas posting period. Arriva has been affected by numerous strikes that were all-out stoppages with little or no service being provided in some places. The one in the northwest of England thankfully got sorted, but there have been others since then.

The railways have been particularly affected with the RMT actions set to continue into 2023. The strike action at Network Rail has been very disruptive with many travel days lost and next to whole weeks blotted out in December and January. That is not all but train crew have been striking as well, so the dependability of rail travel has gone for now. We just have to sit and wait until things get back to some sort of normality, again. There were tastes of this around the royal funeral and during a respite during which unsuccessful talks took place.

It is not as if there are no other underlying problems, either. One example is the ever-present shortage of bus drivers that curtails the frequency of timetabled services. Another is the travails of Avanti and Transpennine Express. Both have not been operating their full timetables for a while. Admittedly, the dependence on goodwill working on rest days for overtime pay has not helped, and neither has delays in train driver recruitment and training caused by the pandemic.

The picture is not a positive one, and there are public spending cuts and tax rises to come. It just feels as if the U.K. has become somewhere where nothing works well. During the year, I got to Ireland a few times and encountered a marked contrast. Apart from the absence of catering on trains or delays to journeys, nearly everything seems to run well over there. Certainly, my only fear of getting stranded was as a result of my own ineptitude.

That was unlike my getaways over the August bank holiday weekend when creative thinking was needed when heading to Stirling. A stopover in Carlisle not only got around lack of service availability, but also offered the chance of a sunny day out around Helvellyn. After that, getting to Scotland was a possibility. Things went better around the royal funeral when I snagged a return to Scotland in a strike-free period when train companies had to do better if people were to pay their respects.

Air travel had its problems with staffing this year as well, but thoughts of an overseas trip brighten what otherwise looks a dark period for British public transport. Trouble is, I am feeling too weary right now because of work and ongoing business in Ireland. Maybe a few weeks rest around Christmas will help address that, and that might help others to get things back on track for everyone else as well.

Takeovers

Posted on November 29, 2022

In the end, the merger of Stagecoach with National Express did not happen at all. The attentions of the Competition Commission meant that an overseas investment fund takeover by DWS could happen. Thus, Stagecoach Group continues to exist largely as it was but what the change means for its flair and competence remains to be seen.

What we do know is that its last rail working in the U.K., Sheffield’s Supertram, is to go into public sector operation next year. There are also moves around the U.K. to move into public transport franchising, particularly in Manchester but also in Wales. This is usually not Stagecoach’s preference, but it will need to adapt. In addition, enhanced transport partnerships are developing too. Stagecoach did increase its stake in Scottish Citylink by adding Megabus operations to the company, which means that ComfortDelGro has a say in those operations too. Acquisitions continue too in the form of an increase to its presence in London.

Go Ahead was another operator to undergo a change of ownership. That was the result of a joint bid by Australia’s Kinetic Group and Spain’s Globalvia. The first of these already operates bus concessions across Australia and New Zealand, while the second is a transport infrastructure company. Given Go Ahead’s moves into Asia, Australasia and other parts of Europe, the fit makes some sense, and what likely is coming in the U.K. is not incompatible either. After all, mistakes like what caused the loss of the Southeastern franchise need to be avoided at any time, especially these.

Scotland’s McGill Group is expanding too with its acquisition of First’s eastern Scottish operations. There already has been rebranding using the older names of Eastern Scottish and Midland Bluebird. The first of these includes Edinburgh and West Lothian, while the second is centred around Stirling. When I was around Stirling during August and September, the changeover was in progress behind the scenes. Investment in new vehicles has been promised, but it remains to be seen what can happen to what was a tired if efficient operation in the testing times in which we now find ourselves.

The current economic and budgetary conditions mean that the sort of expansiveness that some of us may recall will not be extensive for a while to come. It is as if we have gone from the optimistic zenith at the turn of the century to the current nadir. That will mean many more changes like those described above and that entrepreneurial experimentation and innovation will not pervade until things improve. We need to be patient in the meantime.

Merger Ahead?

Posted on February 14, 2022

One of the big developments that emerged in the U.K. transport services world in the last few months has been the possibility of National Express and Stagecoach coming together. This time around, it is National Express that is the senior partner and that is very different to how things were ten years ago. There were talks around that time that never came to anything but it would have been Stagecoach that led in those days.

Things are serious enough that Stagecoach’s express coach service operations are to go to Comfort DelGro, their partners in the Scottish Citylink operation. It extends further than that though because MegBus and South West Falcon would be sold to them as well. That would leave National Express coach services and allow the possibility of using Stagecoach depots for these as well.

Currently, the deal is on hold pending the outcome of an inquiry by the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority. If it were to proceed, then a new international transport company would be created. Within Britain, it would be mainly a bus and coach service operation along with the Sheffield SuperTram in the light rail market. Because of respective travails, it has little impact on the rail network.

There was a time when National Express dominated the U.K. rail industry with numerous franchises that included ScotRail, Central Trains, Midland Mainline, Wales & Borders, Wessex Trains, c2c and National Express East Coast (NXEC). Most of these were lost on re-tendering while NXEC did not make enough money to pay the franchise premium and c2c was sold to Trenitalia.

Stagecoach also became a pervasive operator with South West Trains becoming one the longest-lived private sector operators and East Midlands Trains taking over from National Express undertakings. Another long-lived association was with Virgin Trains in its CrossCountry, West Coast and East Coast incarnations. While the brand was spared the indignity of operating through the pandemic, their uplifting, optimistic and somewhat cheeky air is something that I still miss a lot. The execution may have been imperfect but their heart was in the task and there was an entrepreneurial air that needs rekindling in these darker times. Stagecoach eventually gained such a reputation for competence that they too might be missed and they did get a fitting send-off in the National Rail Awards.

The company tried out all sorts of things in its day with even a hovercraft service across the Firth of Forth being tried for a while. Some of the innovations remained while others did not last but there was a sense of experimentation that was laudable. Numerous overseas ventures were attempted even if a lot of them did not persist. Despite these initiatives, they never forgot the core business so you could depend on them and that is more than be said for some operators today.

To me, National Express makes more of a steady-state impression and their white coach liveries are in line with this. Their bus operations are limited to the West Midlands these days with their Dundonian ones having been sold to McGill’s. Given that, you might think them smaller than Stagecoach with its more pervasive bus networks but that is not how it is. innovation does not strike as a hallmark of the company but it is promising a big switchover to electric vehicles as part of the merger outcome.

Losing Stagecoach’s inventive spirit would be a loss but I still am watching what happens. For now, my vantage point is through the pages of Buses magazine rather than something more speedy in information delivery terms. It looks as if a big changeover is coming so we may have little choice but to await what comes. It could be just the shake-up that the bus and coach market needs.

A Major Switchover

Posted on February 12, 2022

Perhaps unwisely, this website has gained a technology overhaul. It was powered by WordPress for a long time until I got fed up with its slowness. While a server upgrade would have helped, I went for something more drastic: a switch to something completely different.

It is all on a new server anyway so I thought that I would try something else: the automated building of a static website from MarkDown files using Hugo. With less happening on the server, you should see things load faster albeit with some front end scripting to enliven things a bit. In this, I am not alone but it is a more technical approach that may be for everyone. My skills fit this and it is good to try something else.

It also was a chance to reorganise the existing content and even to remove obsolete items so some old links may not work as they did. Some broken links did get fixed though and it reminded me of my mindset and situation earlier in the site’s history. Then, I was a commuter who had enough time to use trains and buses on hill walking and other excursions as well. These days, I work largely from home and the ongoing pandemic has reduced the extent of my outings. The latter hopefully will expand as things improve but there is something else too: I used to keep more up to date on what was happening in transportation.

These days, I limit my Twitter use because there is too much bad news around for my psyche to take and that curtails my learning of new developments. Still, some things come my way like the ongoing travails of rail funding and an upcoming reorganisation and there also is the new buses initiative in England that is long overdue and may prove to be a case of being too little too late.

While travels were curtailed by the pandemic, many services were cut and ceased to run altogether. Then, there was not much to say but an increasing sense of normality could change that and more travel means more experiences to relate too. Also, being out and about means that anyone should come across things that they would have learned otherwise.

After the technical changeover, it is time to keep adding content and I hope that there will be much more to come. Stories of old overseas escapades could make a start and we badly need an uptick in transportation initiatives because it all feels as if things have been on hold for far too long.

Recent Snippets

12:25, January 26, 2023

For those wanting to get to Canadian Provincial and National Parks without using a car, Parkbus offers some useful travel options from Toronto and Vancouver. These do vary by season, but the destinations include Golden Ears, Garibaldi Provincial Park and Joffre Lakes Provincial Park in British Columbia while those in Ontario include Algonquin Provincial Park, Bruce Peninsula National Park, Georgian Bay Islands National Park, Elora Gorge, Rockwood Conservation Area, Rattlesnake Point and Crawford Lake.

20:04, January 22, 2023

Moraine Lake and Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada have been suffering under their popularity. Now, Parks Canada has banned the use of private vehicles on the approach to Moraine Lake year round. That may sound heavy, but oversubscribed car parks meant that the excursion was not such a viable one anyway. It means that human-powered travel as well as usage of shuttle, chartered or scheduled bus services are favoured. The move has attracted criticism, so we will need to see if that brings change.

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