Monday, 28 November 2011

Pear Shaped

That's the best way to describe tonight's traffic!

We sensed trouble at the end of this morning's peak, when they erected temporary traffic lights at the White Swan in Mansbridge (on the A27 a mile or so south of Parkway station, on Velvet A between Eastleigh and Hedge End).

However, we had no serious problems until a casual glance at GreenRoad revealed that the 1610 from Eastleigh to Hedge End was not where it should be! Due at West End at 1629, yet at 1655 it was still in Mansbridge, and ended up about 40 minutes late.

That was just the start! After that, a reported accident on the roundabout at junction 5 (thereby obstructing both main routes south of Eastleigh) and no doubt the onset of bad weather, and the south side of Eastleigh just stopped.

Luckily, the usual flexibility from our brilliant team of drivers meant that everyone disregarded their scheduled duties and covered whatever they needed to cover, with the result that every journey left its start point on time, even if it got comically late along the way!

The 1610 from Eastleigh should come back empty, to refuel and form the 1740 A. The 1640 from Eastleigh should come back as the 1714 from Hedge End (Heath House Lane). The 1710 from Eastleigh finishes at Hedge End and comes back empty to depot and the 1740 comes back as the 1814.

Today, the 1610 arrived just in time to form the 1714 back from Hedge End. This of course meant no cover for the 1740 from Eastleigh, but Controller Karl stepped in to do that.

Normally, the 1714 runs on to the 1820 C1 but that wasn't going to happen, so the 1820 fell to me.

Meanwhile, the 1640 from Eastleigh took around an hour to reach Parkway station and eventually made it through the roadworks 55 minutes late, meaning that it arrived in Hedge End just in time to make the 1814 service back - an hour later than the trip it was supposed to do! At one stage on the outbound journey it was stationary for so long in Southampton Road that GreenRoad concluded it had parked up for the night!

The 1710 is one of two buses that we can't currently track so that disappeared into a big black hole (or maybe a big orange hole) after turning left out of Eastleigh bus station and was next seen back in the yard just over two hours later, while the 1740 from Eastleigh (Karl) eventually got to Hedge End around one hour late.

Meanwhile, the normally excellent ROMANSE was being unusually coy and would only refer to traffic being "slow southbound towards M27 junction 5", which we felt rather understated the issue - although they did later admit to the accident on junction 5 roundabout.

We'll wait with interest to see what happens in tomorrow morning's peak! Extra bodies are on standby, just in case!

A more exciting feature of tomorrow's agenda is my annual trip to London to the UK Bus Awards ceremony, where once again I am delighted to be a guest of our excellent insurance brokers Belmont International.

All a bit frustrating this year though, because I had fully intended to enter in a few a categories, but the entry deadline coincided with an obscenely busy period, on the weekend of our June service change while also preparing for various special events (IW Festival, Glastonbury etc) for which we were contracted, and I just ran out of time to prepare the entries! Mind you, I suppose it's arguable that a company that can't manage to meet a deadline doesn't really deserve too many awards, but hopefully I'll have my proverbial ducks in more of an orderly row in time for next year's awards.

Whatever happens, best of luck to all those in the running for the various gongs - I'm sure all will be worthy winners.

Apart from the fact that we know we're not going to win anything, the only other disappointment is an unfortunate diary clash that means I will have to miss out on the traditional post-lunch socialising that usually lasts well into the night (and beyond) in the company of great people, as I have to be back in Eastleigh for an early evening meeting.

It's all in a good cause though, because it's the annual opportunity for Eastleigh Borough Council members to scrutinise the performance of public transport in the borough, and as part of that to question the operators on any matters they consider to be of interest.

Eastleigh has no statutory obligation to support its public transport yet in practice it is highly proactive and takes a significant interest in the transport offer, both in terms of financial support and working together with operators to promote innovation and good practice. Its members deserve our full attention to any concerns they wish to raise, and I always look forward to hearing their views.

Monday, 21 November 2011

A Mist Opportunity

A social event required my presence in Derby on Saturday night. This gave me the opportunity to sample the buses in the Peak District, something I have long meant to do but never found the right occasion.

To be honest it wasn't really on the agenda for this weekend either. My plan had been to return south on the train as soon as I woke up on Sunday morning and spend the afternoon doing domestic chores back in Southampton. But a conversation with a couple of friends on Saturday night stirred my sense of discovery and I decided to have an adventure!

My plan was not to have a plan, but insofar as I needed to end up somewhere where I could get a train south to be back in Southampton by 7ish on Sunday evening, I had the notion of setting off on trent barton's transpeak service to Matlock at 09:50 on Sunday morning, before perhaps catching TM Travel's 215 service to Sheffield. Needless to say, what actually happened was nothing like that!

Arriving at Derby Bus Station at around 09:40, the transpeak was already on the stand loading. Moreover, it had almost a full seated load with ten minutes to go to departure. It is highly creditable that it was already available for boarding, and most useful to me because it allowed me to decide not to go on it! I like my personal space, especially when I'm feeling slightly delicate after a heavy night, and really didn't fancy nearly an hour on a full bus so I aborted the plan.

In fact I almost aborted the entire plan and headed for the railway station, but just as I was about to leave the bus station my eye was drawn to a service at 10:00 to Ashbourne and Leek. The weekday equivalent between Derby and Ashbourne is trent barton's swift, which has recently been rebranded to very impressive effect, but you can always rely on a tendered Sunday equivalent to a weekday commercial service to be confusingly different, so the Sunday bus is a 108 operated by TM Travel.

This seemed more likely to offer plenty of personal space and so it proved, with a very jolly driver and three passengers on our smartly presented Solo when we left Derby. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I got to Ashbourne but it seemed likely to offer a nice ride, and if I had thought of nothing else I figured I could always carry on to Leek and try to get a connection to Stoke from there.

Two things quickly became apparent as we headed west into the countryside. Firstly, the scenery is almost certainly magnificent. Secondly, I couldn't see any of it due to the thick fog that was enveloping everything apart from a few hundred metres of the road ahead! This afforded me plenty of time to play with my phone, and I stumbled across the website for Public Transport in Derbyshire, a real mecca for a timetable geek like me!

From this I was able to deduce that I had two much more interesting options when I arrived at Ashbourne, with a choice of departures at 10:35 on either a TM Travel bus on route 110 to Matlock, or a Bowers bus on a 42A to Buxton.

The first of these options was more appealing, as it would allow me to return to Derby in a triangle and still get back to Southampton in good time. It was also a slightly shorter journey - the Buxton bus would take nearly an hour and a half to get there and that length of journey tries my patience!

So I resolved I would catch the bus to Matlock, and almost inevitably that isn't what happened!

On arrival at what grandly calls itself Ashbourne Bus Station - a layby comprising three bus shelters - both the above mentioned buses were waiting, and as expected both were Solos. However, it quickly became apparent that there was to be some swapping of buses, and in fact the bus that was supposedly en route from Derby to Leek was actually going to transfer on to the Matlock route, and the bus that was already waiting in Ashbourne - which I assumed would be the 110 - was in fact going forward to Leek.

Presumably this is to cycle buses for maintenance etc - the 108 seems a long way from TM Travel's Sheffield heartland - but since this now meant that I would be staying on the same bus I decided that would be too boring, hence I decided to go to Buxton instead.

For my first trip on a Bowers bus I was delighted to be presented with a choice of three moquettes, all entirely clashing, but the driver was friendly and cheerful. Once again, three passengers were aboard as we pulled out.

There followed one of the most surreal and enchanting bus rides I can remember. Shortly after leaving Ashbourne, we plunged off down a narrow lane and for the next hour weaved our way around woodland and dales, through picturesque villages, up steep hills to magnificent summits and down again into precipitous valleys. At least I assume we did all these things, but the dense wall of fog kept it all secret from us. Occasionally the mist would clear enough to tease us with the merest glimpse of scenic wonder, only to close in again at the next bend.

Through it all the driver made careful but steady progress, guiding us through the gloom and picking our way past cars and horse boxes when they loomed suddenly out of the murky greyness. He displayed the skill of one who knew every inch of the roads, an assuredness honed from years of experience. And yet, suddenly, as we were nearing the end of the trip he stopped and checked with us that he had to take a particular right turn. Then he revealed that he had only ever driven the route once before! Nobody could begrudge him that moment of uncertainty - all of us who drive professionally have found ourselves in that situation - but it made all the more astounding the manner with which he had guided us through the dense fog up to that point!

Shortly before our arrival in Buxton we burst out of the mist into a clear sunny day, and for the last couple of miles we called at every stop, filling up with locals for the short ride into town who would have had no idea of our adventure in the fog.

Despite the frustration of being unable to see anything this was one of the most magical bus rides I can ever recall. I loved the sense of being a long way from anywhere, in our own little cocoon remote from the outside world. And of course I have the added joy of knowing that I will have to go back to experience the route again in clear conditions, when I can properly appreciate the surroundings!

Arrival in Buxton was just before 12:00 and our bus was allowed a brief rest before disappearing out of service - here it is (the one at the front) having just been joined by one of its sisters:

It was clear that having crossed so much of the Peak District, it made much more sense to pop out the other side than to hack back across to Derby, so my thoughts turned to onward transport. The train now became an option, but my preference was for one more bus ride - you see and experience so much more of local life riding on a bus.

Stockport seemed the obvious destination, with an hourly direct train link back to Southampton. transpeak has an annoying three hour gap heading north from Buxton, so skyline 199 - also from the trent barton stable as you can tell from the absence of capital letters - was the obvious choice. 12:15 from Buxton would get me to Stockport Bus Station at 13:25, just in time for a mad scramble up the hill to the railway station for a 13.36 train. Perfect. So of course it didn't happen!

By about 12:30, with no sign of skyline anywhere to be seen, I was bored. I also knew I had missed my connection and would therefore be on the 14:36 from Stockport. Had this been the plan all along I wouldn't have minded at all, but having set my heart on the 13:36 it was something of a let down to know that I had missed it.

I figured that, to be sure of at least getting the 14:36, I could give skyline until around 13:00 and then I would have to walk to the railway station. And then, while I was idly pondering the maps and departure boards at the bus stop, Macclesfield emerged!

Listed on the bus stop timetable was a 12:40 service 58 to Macclesfield. The map suggested it went through somewhere called the Cat & Fiddle, which stirred a distant memory from radio traffic reports in times of bad weather. Consulting the Derbyshire website, I could scarcely believe that compared to the seventy minute slog to Stockport, this option would have me on the West Coast Main Line in barely half an hour! And still in time to catch the 13:36 train one stop up the line!

I consider myself to have a good grasp of the geography of Britain, so I am ashamed that I had no real idea of just how close Buxton is to Macclesfield, and the outside world in general. I had not appreciated how much I would be cutting the corner by heading to Macclesfield rather than Stockport, and until this option bopped me on the nose Macclesfield had never entered my head as somewhere on the shortlist of places to visit! It certainly was not on the list of places I had expected to see when I walked out of my Derby hotel just three hours previously! And yet Macclesfield was the answer!

But Buxton wouldn't let me go without a fight. skyline eventually turned up twenty five minutes late, but I sneered at it with disdain as I waited for the now imminent service 58. Only the 58 didn't come! 12:40 came and went, 12:45, 12:50, 12:55 and still no sign. I was now resigned to a walk to the station to catch the train, and then the 14:36 from Stockport. Such a let down after such anticipation!

And then finally, just as I was about to give up and start walking, along it came! Another Bowers Solo, I boarded along with the two other waiting passengers, and then we sat there for five minutes while the driver had a phone conversation with his controller. He rang to alert him to the delay, but this turned into a lengthy debate about how it had happened and what could be done about it. None of which was getting us any closer to Macclesfield. But eventually we set off.

It was now 13:10, and I knew that my favoured train would be in Macclesfield at 13:49. I knew also that the bus journey would take half an hour and therefore I didn't have much time and I had no idea how to find Macclesfield station once I got there. So the scene was set for a nail-biting finale, but before any of that my breath was taken from me by the stunning scenery that lay around us as we climbed out of Buxton!

Normally I know when I'm going to be in for a scenic ride, and I set my anticipation levels accordingly. By contrast, I saw nothing to look forward to in the trip to Macclesfield. It felt like a cop out, shuffling sheepishly out of the side door of the High Peak. I was not prepared for the Cat and Fiddle!

What an amazing road, what a panorama, and all condensed into less than thirty minutes! What a surprising end to my bus travels for the day, and what a climax!

Before we got to the best bit, I was able to take this photo looking back over Buxton, from which you can see the northern extremity of the fog bank that I had endured for so much of the morning:

After the unexpected excitement of the Cat and Fiddle, our descent into Macclesfield took us right past the railway station (although in the best traditions of bus-rail integration in this country, it was kept as low profile as possible). So my connection was easy, I had had a great adventure and it was barely lunchtime!

The £15 upgrade to First Class was a no brainer and I enjoyed four hours of relaxed snobbery, cruising south in spacious, luxurious accommodation, reading my book and listening to the occasional despairing announcements from the Train Manager to the sardines in Standard Class, not to block the aisles or pile their luggage in the vestibules.

The Peak District fascinates me. It has some of the most dramatic scenery you will encounter in this country, but all in close proximity to real life. Distances are short, it is easy to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time, and especially for a Sunday the frequency of bus services is astonishingly good, with some really useful connections.

Although passenger numbers were modest on the buses I used, there were walkers and sightseers as well as locals. All the drivers I encountered were friendly and helpful.

All the ingredients are there for an amazing tourist product, yet the whole thing seems so much less than the sum of its parts. It seems to me to be crying out for a decently branded network, indeed the network is virtually already there, but if I wasn't a persistent transport geek I would never have worked out that stringing the 108, 42A and 58 together would get me from east to west in a morning, or that everything comes together in Ashbourne at 10:30. I still have no idea if there was a ticket that I could have bought that would have saved me buying three separate singles and given me the flexibility to go where I wanted. There certainly should be.

In my humble opinion the network cries out for some simplification, decent branding, ticketing and promotion, and surely the passenger numbers would go through the roof as they have done on Coasthopper in Norfolk or Jurassic CoastlinX53 in Dorset and Devon.

But despite that, I loved my morning bus adventure in the Peak District and I can't wait to be back!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Les is More

While the bus industry counts many entertaining characters among its staff, the same is equally true of the customers. While the vast majority are polite, unassuming and go about their business with nothing more than a "good morning", "please" or "thank you", there are those who become part of folklore.

Meet Les.

One of our less well known activities is to operate the network of free buses into Sainsbury's at Ferndown on behalf of Xelabus, a commitment that allows us to think of ourselves as a Dorset operator at least on two days of the week! As you can see from the timetable this is a fairly complex network of five interworking local routes into the store.

Les is in charge of route SA4, not that anyone ever calls it that.

It's not clear by what process Les came to be in charge of SA4, although his military credentials suggest that he probably just lined up the other customers outside the store while waiting for the bus one day, and after a bit of square bashing claimed the title by default. But no-one messes with Les.

Les knows where everyone gets on. He stands near the front of the bus and keeps a note of who is travelling and who isn't. Most of the clientele is of a certain age and - despite falling into the same bracket himself - Les helps them on and off with their trolleys. Two trolleys in particular he keeps with him at the front of the bus, as he does not feel it is safe for them to be parked with their owners.

Les keeps the drivers in order, making it his business to show new ones the route and explain the stopping arrangements. Once the passengers and their shopping are loaded ready for the return journey, he decides when it is time to leave.

I met Les for the first time around a month ago, when I deputised for the regular part-timer we were using on the route one Wednesday. Les was both helpful and engaging, making sure that everyone got the service they expected while chatting away to me about his life and times. I think I scored points for recognising that his accent was from the East Midlands, and this led to a series of anecdotes about his upbringing around Melton Mowbray and subsequent army career.

Today we introduced a new driver to the Ferndown clan, as Martin is going to split his time between wooing his regular bunch of senior devotees on the S2, and wooing a whole new bunch of senior devotees in East Dorset.

Mostly it fell to me to show Martin the way, but when we arrived at Prunus Close on the SA4 all that changed. "Can I leave you to show him the ropes?" I enquired, and was met with a stern look and an assertive "well that's what I normally do" in response. I snuck to the back of the bus with my laptop and got more work done in a 25 minute tour of the back streets of Ferndown than I sometimes achieve in a whole day in the office!

I did interrupt my work long enough to take what passes for an action shot on the Sainsbury's bus...

Here we see Les in his rightful position at the helm, while in the background the door of yet another sheltered housing block is thrown open to yield our next intake of passengers. Inside the bus, the ladies model the latest in Ferndown hair fashion, but none are as smartly presented as Les's "bag for life", immaculately folded on the luggage rack.

All was not well today however. On arrival at the store Les revealed that it had been my job to count the number of passengers getting on, but as he had not briefed me on my responsibilities and I had failed to keep a tally, he was faced with the impossible task of deciding whether everyone was present for the return journey without knowing how many he had to count back on!

Moreover, there is a faint whiff of scandal in the air. It emerges that one of the passengers doesn't talk to Les, as he once offered to help her on with her trolley and she admonished him that she was quite capable of taking care of herself. A rift was thus created which simmers on in the background.

But there is no real doubt that Les is the hero of the SA4, and the route would be much duller without him!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


At Velvet we only employ the elite of PSV drivers, a premier band of experienced driving professionals equally at home doing laps of Velmore as reversing a coach up an Alp in whiteout conditions.

Or so we'd like to believe.....!

Today I found myself discussing a possible forthcoming one-off job to the town of Haslemere with two of our drivers. It would have been three, but we know how to play to our employees' individual strengths so we'd sent Steve off to get the teas.

Sadly, mention of the name of this Surrey town - a mere 40 miles away - drew blank looks from both my colleagues.

Not to be defeated, one of them pulled out his iPad and searched for the place on the map. Unfortunately he substituted a 'z' for the 's' and declared it to be "near Oxford". Leaving aside the question of whether the 30 mile distance between the Buckinghamshire village of Hazlemere and the dreaming spires counts as "near", left to his own devices he would have set off north in his bus and presumably spent the day scouring the suburbs of High Wycombe desperate to find some passengers.

The other driver present joined me in laughter at his colleague's schoolboy error. When the chuckling had subsided he thought about it for a moment, smiled as a moment of enlightenment arrived in his brain then declared, "Haslemere... That's in Herefordshire isn't it?"

Saturday, 12 November 2011


Me: Good afternoon, Velvet, Phil speaking, how may I help you?
Customer: Hello. I've got a doctor's appointment in Fryern at 1130. What time can I get a bus from Velmore?
Me: C2 at 1047, gets you there at 1113.
Customer: Okay. Isn't there a more direct one?
Me: The direct one would be the C1 leaving at 1117, but that doesn't get you there until 1133.
Customer: Oh no, that's no good, far too late for my appointment.
Me: Okay in that case it would need to be the C2.
Customer: So there's not another direct one after the C2 then?
Me: No, nothing before the 1117.
Customer: Right, so what time does that get there?
Me: As I said, it gets there at 1133.
Customer: Oh that's fine, I'll only be three minutes late for the appointment, I'll get that one!

Go figure....!?!?!