I was in Scotland over the weekend and made use Scottish Citylink’s coach services like I have done on a lot of previous trips up there. I can report pleasant experiences from using them on this time around but noticed something new: being asked to tag the rucksack that I had with me with name and address so that it could be identified later. This was a new one on me and the tag that I was given had both Scottish Citylink and Megabus branding so my guess is that it applies to both companies. In an age where a lot of luggage can look alike, any time spent at an airport carousel awaiting your bag or case will confirm this, you can see their point. Even so, National Express don’t seem to be bothering with such requirements for now anyway and I have never carried luggage on coaches, buses or trains that I couldn’t easily pick out afterwards. The pretty anonymous looking cases that I tend to use for airline travel are another matter entirely.
As it happened, I made two different journeys with Citylink and was only asked to tag luggage for one of them. The first journey made was from Glasgow to Ardlui and the second from Butterbridge (between Cairndow and Rest and Be Thankful) to Glasgow with a walk through hill country sandwiched between both of these. The outbound trip from Glasgow was operated for Citylink by Stagecoach and the return one used West Coast Motors as the contractor (hurrah for the sensible resolution to the summertime bus war). That luggage tagging was only mentioned for the outbound service might be because I was getting on the coach at Buchanan Bus Station and I was hailing the other coach from the side of the road in damper weather, hardly the sort of circumstances for ensuring compliance with the rigours of due process and procedure. Even so, the need to have you luggage tagged for Citylink and Megabus is still something to keep in mind, even if it isn’t applied consistently or other operators such as National Express don’t bother with the requirement.
I have been booking some travel with National Express on the web today. However, I was initially that my preferred service was booked up (it looks as if it might have had something to do with my selecting an economy ticket instead of a standard one; they were both the same price anyway). Later on, I did manage that booking but the experience did highlight one thing: I was only told of unavailability when I tried to pay for the booking. It might have been better if the website was more dynamic in that it only showed you what was available rather than letting you find out several steps into the booking process.
The same annoyance affects web bookings on the Caledonian Sleeper services run by First ScotRail. Their Bargain Berth offerings bring another idea to mind. It would be a great help if availability could be seen at a glance rather than having to plough through several steps to meet dead ends as is the current way of working.
All in all, train and bus companies could learn from the likes of Aer Lingus who do present their fares in a far more friendly manner with the cheapest fare any single day displayed in a calender-esque table. It is true to say that the tariffs shown may not be all-inclusive with charges for taxes, baggage and seat reservations in there but you do get a very quick view of when’s the least expensive time to travel. A lot of cross-fertilisation has occurred between the different modes of travel already and not always for the better; just travel in Virgin’s Pendolinos and contemplate a possible source of inspiration for the window designs. However, it would be good to see some best practice shared rather than having to endure a “Personal Trainer” on the National Rail website.
Yesterday, my bus to work was delayed by twenty five minutes on what was a wonderfully sunny day. My suspicion is that heavy traffic along the inbound route from Manchester to Macclesfield or temporary traffic lights outside Macclesfield General Hospital come have been to blame. Broken down buses and missing drivers don’t help either, of course.
The thoughts that are giving birth to this post do not pertain to the occasions when you really need to get somewhere on time but rather when the weather is being at its most grotty. Freezing cold, heavy driving, gale force winds and snow all come to mind and can wreak havoc on road traffic. It’s as if those times when things were at their most precarious that are coming back to me now.
Like the evening when all the traffic had ground to a standstill after a passing storm downed trees and electricity power cuts (that put traffic lights out of action, adding to the misery); I was lucky enough to catch a passing bus that was not in service but its driver doing some good beyond call of duty by carrying wayward souls home for free (yes, there is some welcome kindness in the world). Another instance was when a broken down lorry added to the problems caused by snow and I took up the offer of a lift home after a two hour bus crawl into work.
Yes, winter is ahead of us and, while they have been milder of late, that doesn’t preclude the appearance of wilder weather and we may become less well able to deal with cold snaps as time goes on. That may mean traffic snarl ups with buses caught up in them and passengers left out in weather from which most of us would stay in and enjoy the warmth of the indoors. It might be time to release buses from their encasement in other road traffic around where I live so that they can make headway while all about them has ground to a halt.
Buses are like any machine: they can and do break down. It does need to be said that they are reliable for most of the time but, people being people, having a breakdown when you are in a hurry is the last thing that you need and some can vent their frustration at this too. Of course, the same comments equally apply to car ownership and usage.
If your journey is of the leisure variety, things aren’t so bad; you just alter your plans like I did when visiting the Lake District on Saturday. I was already running late thanks to thoughtless folk on the railway in Manchester and so was encouraged by the sight of the Stagecoach bus operating the 505 to Coniston. However, it had broken down so any thoughts of heading to the Coniston fells had to be placed on hold. I instead went on an out and back walk from Windermere train station itself and had an enjoyable day. Having had a number of ideas in mind meant that a broken down bus was never going to spoil a wonderful day.
I also use buses on the daily commute and the Arriva-operated 130 Macclesfield-Manchester service is the one that mainly serves my needs but it uses buses that are between 10 and 15 years old so the occasional missing bus can be attributed to a breakdown. I saw one broken down outside my house one evening and it did take some time for mechanics to appear and set it on its way again. Thankfully, new buses are coming to Manchester so we might be getting the ones that they are displacing and they would be newer than what is now plying the 130 route. I have never been on a 130 when it broke but the same could not be said of one occasion of using the 27 Knutsford-Macclesfield service when an Iveco minibus stopped up and we needed to wait for another to come and rescue us. Those buses are long gone and the 27 seems to be a paragon of reliability these days.
Having a mechanical failure in the right place helps if your journey is to continue without too much disruption. It’s not so good when it takes an hour or like the time when a bank holiday journey from Oban ended in the early hours of the next morning because of a missing Scottish Citylink coach from Fort William to Glasgow. Another Scottish Citylink case and a near miss was my witnessing the elements of gearbox trouble on an early morning 916 Glasgow-Fort William-Uig Scottish Citylink coach service; it didn’t inspire much confidence, especially given that this was on the edge of Rannoch Moor at the time. Switching the engine on and off was enough to restore progress though. That was unlike a rail-replacement coach service from Glasgow to Carlisle when gearbox failure stopped us in our tracks on the side of the M8; we were put on another vehicle very quickly if my memory serves me correctly. Quick rescue was also assured when a Dublin Bus vehicle operating the 67 between Celbridge and Dublin malfunctioned because we were on a busy thoroughfare. Quick rescue is one thing but it can fill up a following vehicle very quickly like when a Citylink coach on which I was travelling from Oban to Glasgow picked up West Coach Motors passengers from a failed 926 Campbeltown-Glasgow coach. Luckily, there was also a Citylink coach plying the same route and that took its share too.
I may have collected up a good number of incidents here but that is because I have been a heavy user of bus and coach services for over a decade. Bus mechanical failures remain rare and, with mobile telecommunications being so pervasive, help is always easy to contact even if it takes a little while to come. Allowing a bit of slack on the time front and possessing a modicum of patience can get us all through whatever gets thrown at us.
Recently, I had a journey with EMR go wrong because of a train breakdown. Only shortly beyond Sheffield station, we had to turn back, and the journey was delayed by around an hour. When I came to claim compensation for the delay, the process was straightforward thanks to having PDF copies of the tickets. It also was very prompt with the money going back into my PayPal account. Though the journey had not been the best, the customer service afterwards cannot be faulted.
20:33, December 4, 2023
The RMT dispute with the English train operators has ended while other negotiations continue. The legislation for minimum service levels is coming into effect too. However, the ongoing ASLEF actions continue and more could follow. How things will look around Christmas and New Year remains to be seen. There is more hope than this time year, though.