Wednesday, 12 December 2012

You can help some of the people...

While I love all our customers unconditionally, some are easier to help than others.  I'm not sure whether the passenger I met on Saturday in Hedge End should be chided for his stupidity or commended for his honesty, or maybe both!

Two teenage boys got on together and one of them asked me how much it would cost for a return to Eastleigh.  "Five pounds", I replied.  Crestfallen, he turned to his friend and said, "sorry mate I haven't got enough, we can't go."

Not one to lose a sale easily, I asked how old he was.  He looked at me as if I was his parents, and asked why I wanted to know.  I explained, with heavy emphasis, that child fares apply up to fifteen, so if he told me he were fifteen, the fare would only be three pounds.

The penny dropped with his mate straight away, and we each looked expectantly at our friend while we waited for him to spot his cue.  Eventually, after much thought, he got ready to speak...  "Aw man, that sucks, I'm sixteen!"

Friday, 17 August 2012

End of an era

Yesterday saw a certain 'coming of age' for Velvet as we retired the last of the Volvo B10M double deckers - the vehicles that brought us into the world in the first place right at the start of 2008.

For a long time we ran three - F302, 303 and 309 MYJ.  But 302 and 309 were retired last summer, leaving 303 to soldier on in isolation for another year.  We might not have bothered to keep it through the whole year, but it cost us £4000 to get through MOT last August and I was going to get every penny of value out of it!  Finally its MOT expired at midnight on the 16th and it will pass into history.

We won't dwell on 302.  It was a good bus but to be honest was always the odd one out.  Acquired a good six months after the others, it never had the same zest for life as 303 and 309 and plodded around at a sedate pace.  Apart from a starring moment appearing behind Michael Portillo in Great British Railway Journeys, it has few claims to fame.

303 and 309 are the ones that have a special place in my heart, for they were our first ever bus purchases back in late 2007.

Our plan when we started was to acquire four single deckers for a three PVR local service (which wasn't going to be the A, that was a last minute change of plan) and two double deckers as back-up and to take advantage of rail replacement opportunities etc.  The obvious candidates were Leyland Olympians, so Taz and I toddled off to Ensign one day armed with the details of two Northern Counties Olympians.

At that stage I was aware that Ensign had the Citybuses, but Taz didn't even know they existed.  I had however ruled them out of my thoughts as I was fixated on the idea of Olympians, knowing that they had such a good reputation.

However, when we looked at the Olympians we were underwhelmed.  Mechanically they seemed fine and went reasonably well - but not sparkling - on road test.  But the interiors were severely battle scarred, and would have needed a lot of TLC to make presentable for public service.  We had neither the time, money nor inclination to take on that kind of project at that stage.

Since we were there the ever-helpful Ross Newman showed us round the rest of their yard, including - I think - some Dublin Olympians that might have been candidates but for their very spartan interiors, and also the fact that they were rather more than we wanted to pay.

Then Taz spotted one of the B10Ms lurking in the shed and asked what it was.  The rest - as they say - is history.  It was 309, and one road test later we were both absolutely hooked.  And apart from having an old-fashioned moquette, they were ready to go to work.

So we agreed on the spot to buy 306 and 309.

Then, after we had driven out, I could see something was exercising Taz's mind, so I stopped the car and shone the interrogation lamp in his eyes.  It turned out that one of them had square headlights and one had round headlights - a detail I had completely missed - and Taz wanted them both the same.  So I rang Ross from just outside the gate, and the order was changed to 303 and 309 on the grounds of matching headlights!

It would be almost two months before we would get the benefit of our purchases.  We made the mistake of sending them to a recommended paint shop in Essex, who's name I still cannot bring myself to utter without adding copious swear words, and who proceeded to take absolutely ages to do two of the most awful paint jobs I have ever seen.

But eventually we did manage to collect both vehicles.  I had forgotten how good the B10M chassis really is, and it was a joy to drive 309 back, which of course was accomplished without missing a beat.  Then a few weeks later it was Taz's turn to bring 303 back, and we each had our own adopted bus!

Between us, we have had many adventures in these two vehicles.

The most distressing was one of the first.  On 8th March 2008 – the second Saturday of us operating route A – I made a last minute substitution to put 303 on to a mid-afternoon departure from Eastleigh because I realised the scheduled Dart was low on fuel.  Three minutes later, a car ploughed head on into 303 at the junction of Campbell Road and Southampton Road.  The car went straight under the front of the bus and I still have no idea how the car driver survived.  Our vehicle was off the road for about three months such were the extent of accident repairs.

In happier times, one memorable occasion for me was 303’s deployment on a Three Bridges – Brighton non-stop rail replacement diagram one Sunday.  Six round trips plus positioning mileage, 22 hours from depot to depot all at high speed running without missing a beat.

303’s real finest hour for me though was also on rail replacement, working for South West Trains on an overnight job between Eastleigh and Poole.  For reasons that are not relevant here, I’d given myself a seemingly impossible task to get back empty from Poole after my first trip, to do the 0243 Eastleigh – Southampton Central.  I drove 303 the 36 miles from Poole Station to Eastleigh Station in 43 minutes, and arrived back in Eastleigh with 2 minutes to spare!  303 was on a pedestal for me after that night, and although Taz would never agree, that was the night it became mine!

For comedy value though, you could not beat the visit of 303 and 309 to the Isle of Wight for the 2010 Isle of Wight Festival.  Southern Vectis were, as usual, superb hosts and looked after us well, but with most of their fleet being around 14 feet tall or less, when they made the ferry bookings they didn’t give a thought to the implications of us bringing buses 14ft 10ins in height!

We were booked on Wightlink’s Portsmouth – Fishbourne route, a route comprising four boats, only one of which – as it turned out – happens to have enough deck height to accommodate these buses.

Taz and I dutifully turned up for our booked sailing only to watch the one suitable boat just leaving the berth on the previous sailing.  We parked in the assigned lane, and were then greeted by a marshaller strolling up, peering skywards and declaring there was no way our buses would fit on the next boat.

So we watched our booked sailing come and go, then the marshaller reappeared with a senior colleague and a very long stick.  They held the stick against the front of 309, measured the height and declared that it would – just – fit on the next boat.

The next boat appeared and I set off down the ramp in 309 with Taz in 303 behind me.  Once on deck, I crept as gingerly as I could into the covered section below the passenger accommodation, with a very nervous looking marshaller in front of me watching me.  I reckon I got just over halfway through when his anguished looks turned to blind panic and much shouting and waving and gesticulating.  I was now wedged against the roof!  I was all for carrying on and popping out the other end, but this wasn’t deemed an acceptable solution, and there was nothing for it, but for Taz and I to reverse in convoy off the Isle of Wight Ferry and back up the ramp onto dry land.

Eventually we made it to the Island almost two hours later than planned, having had to wait for the one decently sized boat – the St Clare – to come back round.

After that, we barely saw 303 or 309 for the rest of the weekend.  Or to be accurate, we saw plenty of them, but being driven by a variety of Southern Vectis staff.  Such was the appeal of these vehicles that they were seemingly passed from one driver to another in a continuous relay, without us getting a look in.  Which was absolutely fine by me, because it meant we got to drive all their buses instead!

The trip home was also entertaining.  We were not the only operators working on hire to Southern Vectis that year – Reading Buses were also present with four Spectras and Emsworth and District had one Olympian on parade.  Originally we were all booked home Fishbourne around 1400 hrs on the Monday, after the rush of homebound Festival-goers had abated.  However, due to some kind of administrative error, those bookings were found not to exist and we were all rebooked onto the 0100 hrs sailing on the Tuesday.

An eleven hour delay in the homeward journey was not a huge issue for us or for the Emsworth driver.  We simply went home, on foot, having done a deal with Vectis for their staff to put the buses on the boat at their end at the appointed time, so all we had to was turn up at Portsmouth to meet them off the boat.

For the Reading drivers who, it must be said, had not really entered into the spirit of the weekend right from the start, this was a nightmare.  They couldn’t go home, they simply had to wait with their buses on the Island and eventually set off eleven hours later than planned.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise, when the boat docked at Portsmouth at 0145 hrs, as we stood on the quayside waiting for 303 and 309 to be brought off, that the four Reading buses roared past us with scarcely a smile, let alone a wave as they set off for the long journey home.

303 and 309 appeared moments later, as did the Emsworth bus, but there was no-one waiting to collect it!  The Vectis driver was panicking as he had to go back as foot passenger on the same boat, so Taz and I took responsibility for the Emsworth bus, parked it, isolated it and secured it as best we could.

Subsequently – and I only have it as hearsay that this is true – we learned that the Emsworth driver had been in Portsmouth, in plenty of time, but became so bored waiting that he decided to go over to the Island as a foot passenger to retrieve his bus himself.  Whether he didn’t realise that there was more than one boat on the route, or whether he simply misunderstood the timetable is not clear, but evidently as he sailed across the Solent, he passed his bus going the other way about half way across!

This delayed Taz and I by about five minutes, but it was with huge satisfaction that we caught up with the Reading Spectras on the M27 at Bursledon and romped past them with theatrical waves galore!

303 and 309 went back to the Island the following year, with much less excitement on very capacious Red Funnel ferries, but in doing so gave me the opportunity to capture this shot of 309 on Shanklin seafront.

By this time next week the likelihood is that these vehicles will be no more, but they will always be fondly remembered as the vehicles that gave us our first start in the world of bus operation!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A Life Changing Experience

Some people might think things have been a little quiet here lately. That’s partly due to pressure of work – we started operating two new routes in Winchester on 11th June, and the workload involved for a company of our size to get those kind of routes off the ground is immense.

This is particularly true when we are also bringing new acquisitions into the fleet in the form of our four ex-Dawson Rentals DAF DB250 double deckers, all of which are being refurbished internally.

 However, sometimes life has a way of deflecting you from your intended course, and so it proved one Wednesday night in June, when my 66-year old mother fell down a concrete staircase at her home in Bedford, fracturing her skull and two vertebrae in her spine, breaking ribs and puncturing her lungs.

 After a night in Bedford Hospital she was transferred to a neurological ward at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, where she spent a few nights clearly very ill, but apparently alert and in fighting spirit. However, a sudden and sharp decline in her condition saw her taken into intensive care in the Neurosciences Critical Care Unit (NCCU) at Addenbrooke’s, where she has been ever since.

Over the first few days in NCCU – and despite a successful operation to repair a vertebra in her thorassic spine – her condition continued to deteriorate, with a serious chest infection taking hold. She was placed under almost constant sedation, kept alive by a series of machines. Eight days after the accident, the senior medical staff there raised the possibility for the first time that they might have to withdraw treatment and let nature take its course.

However, the following day they decided she was well enough to undergo further surgery and performed a life-saving operation to repair the spinal column in the base of her neck – a delicate procedure that required entry through both the front and back of her neck.

 This proved to be the turning point, and since then Mum’s condition has very slowly but surely improved. She is now awake and alert much of the time, no longer breathing or feeding through machines. Use of her limbs is gradually returning, and her mental faculties are returning to the point where she can usually – though not always - recognise visitors and identify our names and what relationship we are to her. She is also sometimes able to construct very simple sentences of a few words, to communicate that she is hot or cold or thirsty or whatever.

 It is hoped that she will be out of NCCU in a day or two and back in a normal ward, where they can begin the process of rehabilitation and teaching her how to carry out very basic functions for herself, such as eating or getting dressed. Nobody knows how much cognitive ability she will regain, or how quickly, and we sense that we are in for a long, slow process.

 For me, ten trips to Addenbrooke’s in the first two weeks meant that everything else in my life was placed on hold. Luckily I have an excellent team at Velvet who have kept things going superbly well, despite all the challenges of the additional routes and vehicles. I am now travelling to Cambridge two or three times per week and gradually getting back into a more normal work routine.

 I have toyed with writing about this episode several times before now, but always shied away from it for fear of appearing self-indulgent. But many friends and contacts have been aware that something was wrong with Mum and haven’t really known what, so this post allows me to put that right, as well as thanking the many people who have very kindly offered their support in all sorts of ways. It is deeply appreciated.

 As someone who has always hated hospitals it seems odd to have one of Europe’s largest hospital campuses as my second home, but without this experience I would never have come to appreciate the work of some of the world’s leading neurological specialists and the fine team that supports them,

 To enter the NCCU is to enter a science fiction film set. In beds all around the room lie motionless bodies, each sprouting a multitude of lines and tubes connecting them to a profusion of machines. Everywhere you look are blinking lights, computer screens, graphs, wires and unfeasibly large syringes, silently and relentlessly pumping their subjects full of the most specialised drugs you will find.

 But rather than paint a picture of my own, I can do no better than highlight this article from the Daily Telegraph in 2010, which emphasises the delicate tightrope they continually tread in making decisions about whether people should live or die. I am in awe of these people.

 But for now the important thing is that Mum appears to be out of immediate danger and slowly on the mend, and my attention can start to return to the usual mixture of rambling travelogues, amusing observations and occasional outbursts on matters of topical importance, for which many people very kindly come to this blog!

Monday, 7 May 2012

i recommend this blog

One of my long-standing criticisms of the bus industry - and one of the reasons for setting up my own company, although we are barely out of the starting blocks ourselves - was because I have always felt that bus companies get the relationship with the customer entirely the wrong way round.

For any retail business, the process of designing a product ought to start by developing an understanding of what the likely market is, what are the expectations of that market, what are the important factors that will drive purchasing decisions, and then how to position the product to take best advantage of the opportunity that exists.

In other words, good product design should be a response to the market signalling what it wants. The marketing and branding strategy for that product should then follow through in one seamless process, communicating to the market how the company has met the perceived demand.

Sadly in too many cases, bus companies fail to understand that they are retail businesses and look at product design through the wrong end of the telescope. Faceless bureaucrats in remote offices (and by the way, that used to be me) decide what the market shall have. There is no research base or evidence base to substantiate their decisions, the whole process is based on educated guesswork.

The role of marketing in this case is reduced to dressing a pre-determined product, which is entirely wrong. Marketing (and within that, branding) is seen as a bolt-on activity, designed to make the output of the faceless bureaucrats look somehow appealing to the potential users.

Because this is not marketing in the true sense, it doesn't necessarily attract people with the right skills or motivation. Their efforts may therefore be limited to short run promotional campaigns, that are not applied consistently to all media, or may rely too heavily on one-off photo opportunities and press releases, and fail to understand the need for sustained (and 'open all hours') dialogue with users.

Now I'm not saying that this never produces the right result. As luck would have it, the faceless bureaucrats are often very experienced, skillful, talented people who may know have a good understanding of what they are trying to achieve; and the marketing people may well be very creative, inspired communicators who know how to bring life to even the most mundane of products.

So all is not lost. But to achieve success in this way is to achieve it despite, rather than because of, the business's approach to product design. Because of this, I would argue that the results are generally harder to achieve and inferior to what would be achieved if the company understood and implemented the process properly from the start.

One company that epitomises how to do it properly is trent barton. At this point some readers will groan and think "not them again", as they are no strangers to the trade and local media. But yes, them again, because the reason they achieve the success they do is precisely because their whole business is aligned to understanding the needs of their customers and then designing products to address those needs, rather than designing products in isolation and then trying to make them fit the customers.

I mention them because they are currently in the process of relaunching rainbow 4 as i4, and a more comprehensive approach to refreshing a product it would be hard to find anywhere. In my opinion, they have taken product design in the bus industry to the next level with this project.

You can read more about the actual relaunch here, but the real purpose of my post today is to draw attention to a new blog, transportdesigned, which looks very promising and has got off to a great start today with a really insightful post analysing trent barton's approach to product design, with particular reference to the relaunch of i4. Strongly recommended reading - you can do so here.

Saturday, 14 April 2012


A new Travelodge has opened in Eastleigh, opposite the railway station. It's perfect for me, being half way between the yard and the office. I need never go home! I'm looking forward to being invited round to view and select my personal suite in the very near future.

Meanwhile the new hotel was the hot topic of conversation between two senior citizens chatting in Eastleigh bus station one morning this week.

"There's absolutely no need for the new Travelodge", said one of them, "nobody ever needs to stay the night in Eastleigh anyway".

"You're right", agreed the other, "and Eastleigh's traffic is gridlocked. The Travelodge will just push it over the edge!"

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Reasons not to get BSOGged down

It is not very often that I use this blog to comment on topical issues. However, one subject has been troubling me greatly of late, so I am interrupting the usual stream of travelogues and whimsical observations on daily life in a bus company, to bring you my thoughts on the forthcoming cut in BSOG.

As most readers will know, the rate of Bus Service Operators’ Grant will reduce by twenty per cent from the start of April, as part of the government’s wider assault on public expenditure in all its forms.

The industry in England found out about this cut nearly eighteen months ago so we have had plenty of time to prepare for it.

However in the last few weeks, as the realisation dawns that this change is imminent, there seems to have been a sudden increase in the volume of protest, with much comment from industry insiders and observers predicting dire negative effects for bus companies as a result of this reduction.

I find myself unable to agree with those taking this position, and I really worry that this crescendo of dissenting voices could cause far more damage to the industry than the cut itself ever will.

Clearly it is always going to be difficult to swallow any reduction in support for our industry. We can all recite many reasons why a strong and prosperous bus network is an important feature of a well functioning society. While the industry cherishes the opportunity afforded by its deregulated status to innovate and attract new users, most would agree that interventions in the form of BSOG, support for socially necessary services and (perhaps more contentiously) concessionary fares, strengthen the quality and quantity of service provision overall.

However, there are many other industries whose fortunes rely to a greater or lesser extent on government funding, and all could no doubt put up an equally impassioned argument as to why that support should not dwindle.

In Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, it seems to me that the industry has a friend. I have not met him, but I have heard him speak on several occasions and been impressed every time. The impression gained from those who have regular dealings with him is that he is positively inclined towards public transport, and bus travel within that.

In the context of cuts faced by other parts of government, and recognising that prior to the October 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review there were widespread predictions that BSOG would be further reduced or would disappear altogether, my impression is that the industry has got away far more lightly than we might have done.

For Velvet, the reduction in BSOG will increase our total costs by two per cent. Unwelcome certainly, but hardly the end of the world.

From some of the comments I have seen whistling about in the last few weeks, you would gain the impression that this will bring the industry to its knees. Frankly, if the industry is in such a state that a two per cent increase in its costs will have that effect, we are in a very poor state indeed.

Yes there may be a need for some fare increases to bridge the gap – we are businesses after all and do have to balance the books – but these need hardly be at a level that will drive customers away in their millions. And to be honest, with eighteen months’ notice, I would hope that any commercially aware company would have been planning for this change long ago, and using the range of tools and skills at our disposal to improve our products and drive organic growth.

There are those who would argue that by accepting this cut with minimal protest, we send the message that we are an easy target for further cuts in the future.

By contrast, I would argue that by accepting that we cannot be exempt from reductions in public expenditure, by acknowledging that we have avoided a potentially far worse fate, and by adopting a positive “can do” approach to continuing to develop our businesses and attract more people to public transport, we will demonstrate to the minister, to government as a whole and to other observers that we can be trusted as responsible custodians of public money.

The alternative position – to resist and oppose this cut – will portray us as negative and uncooperative. If I were the minister faced with such a volume of opposition to what seems really to be a pretty tame measure, I might just be asking myself how much I would really want to place my faith in these private bus companies, and whether it might be time to look again at the commercial freedom we enjoy.

That’s why I cannot support those of my colleagues who have chosen to adopt a confrontional stance towards this measure, even though I hold many of them in the highest regard as individuals and respect them greatly. Instead I would exhort my fellow operators to invest our time in showing the watching world that we have the energy, spirit and self-belief to overcome the challenge that the reduction in BSOG represents, and that we will not allow it to deter us from our mission to showcase the bus as the mode of choice for the nation’s future transport needs.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

From A to B

I wasn’t expecting much of a view from an Aachen hotel window, so to throw open the curtains to be greeted with the imposing sight of the Marschiertor was a welcome bonus. The Germans do mediaeval quite well, and this imposing edifice – once the southern gate of the city walls – has survived in amazingly good condition from its construction in the late 13th century.

Originally built to keep out the Belgians and Dutch, the natives eventually stumbled upon a far cleverer way of controlling their international neighbours. Allowing their cross-border cousins to believe that they had seduced the Aacheners with the tantalising combination of beer and cheese, the locals dismantled the wall and replaced it with a stunningly mediocre line of dismal concrete office blocks and hotels, in which Belgian and Dutch visitors are imprisoned on a daily basis.

The Marschiertor itself was retained to provide an attractive backdrop for visiting transport enthusiasts to use in their photos, and as we emerged from the Ibis Aachen Marschiertor and sank ankle deep into the three inches of snow that had coated the ground overnight, the three of us entertained the locals with our synchronised camera-pointing.

Each choosing our own vantage point in the snow a few metres apart from each other, so that each of our pictures would be truly unique and not in any way almost identical, our excitement at capturing a good shot of a bus passing in front of the ancient gate would be superseded by the excited yelp of one us announcing “there’s one coming the other way”, whereupon three lenses would swing round in unison, occasionally to be followed by the hysterical cry of “it’s a Belgian one!”

During the fifteen minutes of live cabaret it became clear that the overnight snowfall and arctic temperatures had not caused the transport system to break sweat and all was clearly running normally. We duly set off up the road to the main railway station, our mission today to explore the Rhineland and bordering Hunsrück hills, ending up in the riverside city of Mainz.

One of the most amazing bargains you will find anywhere on the European railway system is the Schönes Wochenende Ticket – literally the “nice weekend ticket”. It allows unlimited travel on either a Saturday or Sunday for up to five people on local and regional rail services throughout the whole of Germany for 40 Euros – essentially unlimited travel throughout the country for as little as 8 Euros (roughly £7) each. In our case there were three of us, which pushed the cost to a whopping £10 each!

I can remember travelling in Germany when the Schönes Wochenende Ticket was first introduced and the local trains were packed with people taking advantage of the incredible value. These days I guess it has become part of normal life and people don’t go out of their way as much to benefit, so we were able to kick back and relax with almost an entire coach to ourselves on a glorious sunny morning, as we pulled out of Aachen Hauptbahnhof on the 09:51 Regional Express to Cologne.

The ticket does not allow travel on InterCity, EuroCity or InterCity Express trains and this does discourage longer distance journeys, although it is still possible to cover vast swathes of the country on regional services. Our plan for today was to use a series of such trains to cover the trip to Mainz, with a side trip on a branch line I have always been curious about, but never found the opportunity to sample – the Hunsrückbahn from Boppard to Emmelshausen.

However, whereas our instincts were to make it up as we went along, the frequency of the Hunsrückbahn is now only every ninety minutes at weekends and this meant that we couldn’t afford to leave things entirely to chance. Neither terminus is a particularly big place, Saturday afternoons are pretty quiet in most German towns and we didn’t want to run the risk of being becalmed for a lengthy period somewhere with nothing useful to do. We also fancied mixing buses and trains and this meant some planning of connections, especially as wanted to enjoy daylight for as much of the journey as possible.

So while the others stared out of the window at the beautiful snowy landscape, I was running endless journey options through the DB Journey Planner on my phone. Indeed so engrossed was I that I completely failed to notice when the snow ran out and normal scenery resumed – a point that escaped me until we were leaving Cologne on our next train almost an hour later!

I had however worked out that our travel options would be optimised if we were to take the train from Cologne to Koblenz, the bus from Koblenz to Emmelshausen and then the train from there down to Boppard, and this meant being in Koblenz by 12:30 at the latest. Unfortunately, because of our leisurely start to the day, the earliest possible arrival in Koblenz by regional train was 12:42!

The only way to avoid the itinerary dragging slowly through the afternoon was to cheat and catch an InterCity train from Cologne to Koblenz which would have us there by around 11:45, but this in turn required a fairly tight connection at Colgone. So, while the others ran outside the main station to take arty photos of the city’s imposing cathedral, I worked the ticket machine and trebled the cost of our day’s travel buying three singles for the next leg of our journey.

However for me the chance to travel on an InterCity was well worth the money. They are without doubt my favourite German trains for all the wrong reasons. Once the pinnacle of continental rail travel, they are now the epitome of faded glory. While the regional services are generally neat, compact and efficient, and the streamlined ICEs storm across the nation in a purposeful and businesslike fashion, the InterCity trains meander across the country on long and improbable itineraries, not going fast or directly enough to compete with the ICEs for genuine long distance customers, but priced and marketed to make them unattractive for local journeys.

Some InterCity trains that happen to cross international boundaries enjoy an enhanced status, being branded as EuroCity. This branding was first used in 1987, just in time for the teenaged me to burst onto the scene of European train travel. With each pair of trains being named, usually I recall for famous individuals, and with the possibility of coaches being provided by any of the national railways through whose countries the train passed (and often a mixture within the same train), this heightened the sense of occasion and drama, and there was nothing more thrilling than to stand on a continental platform and watch a EuroCity pull out heading for a remote city in a distant land.

These days the EuroCity brand just means the train has an even longer and more improbably itinerary than a normal InterCity, and our conveyance for the fifty minute hop to Koblenz was EC101, which had left Hamburg at 06:30 that morning and would eventually arrive at Chur, in a remote corner of the Swiss Alps, over twelve hours later at 18:43 that evening. To complete the magic, it was a Swiss Railways (SBB) coach that conveyed us for our short trip up the Rhine Valley.

I was reluctant to leave the train at Koblenz – I could have quite happily stayed on board until Switzerland – but it was now over two hours since my travelling companions had last taken a photo of a bus and they were getting restless. Luckily for them, Koblenz has a new, gleaming bus station in front of the main railway station, and while I sat at the departure stand guarding the bags, my compatriot nutters had a photographic orgy, sprinting the length and breadth of the station capturing vehicles of all colours, and bemusing at least one local driver in the process.

The ride out of Koblenz to Emmelshausen proved to be a scenic triumph, and where better to enjoy it than aboard the most lurid of all European bus porn, the Citaro LE. This variant of one of Europe’s most popular bus designs is one of the best examples of interurban bus designs you will encounter, solving the traditional Citaro problem of a very messy back end, with a raised rear section allowing all forward facing seats, while keeping the refined qualities of the marque.

I was hoping that the view would be pleasant, but the reality surpassed my expectations. The route out of Koblenz enjoys a vertiginous climb into the hills, such that barely five minutes after leaving the bus station you have a panoramic view over the majestic Rhine river, the roads and railways snaking along the riverbanks and the steep slopes behind on the right bank.

Eventually the steep ascent gives way to more gentle, rolling terrain, often with views miles into the distance, occasionally surrounded by forest. The ride to Emmelshausen was one of the most pleasant hours of bus travelling I can recall, on a gorgeous bus with such great scenery being beamed in through the windows. Not for the first time that day, it was a chore to have to disembark.

Emmelshausen was a lot more industrial than I had expected, albeit there was not much happening on this Saturday afternoon. A small town of around 5,000 inhabitants, it took only a few minutes for us to walk the length of the main street, leaving us around an hour to kill until the departure of the train to Boppard.

The large number of eating establishments – ranging from kebab shops to an upmarket Italian restaurant – surely reflects the weekday industrial population, as a community of this size would never support such a quantity. We picked an unprepossessing but welcoming cafe, where the Gulaschsuppe was warm and wholesome, an ideal antidote to the biting cold outside.

Our departure from Emmelshausen was aboard the Hunsrückbahn, a privately operated railway run by the Rhenus Veniro company. Many regional services in Germany have been contracted to private companies, bringing colour, variety and interest to the local railway scene, and our plan was to travel on as many as we reasonably could. This was the first, and was notable for the driver greeting all the passengers as he walked through the train before departure – not an unusual event as were to discover.

This line makes a precipitous descent through yet more stunning landscape, clinging to the side of a hill with a sheer drop on one side of the train. The line is so steep that the train feels as though it is crawling along, trying to keep its footing, and it is only sad that the line is so short. After barely twenty minutes we had arrived in the riverside town of Boppard, scene of my first ever visit to Germany on a school trip in 1986, and gateway to some of the most spectacular scenery Germany has to offer!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Terminus Hopping and Country Hopping

Picture the scene: It’s a Friday morning at a main line rail station, and the platform is full of expectant travellers waiting for the 0845 InterCity departure, reassured by the screens showing it is on time. But 0845 comes and goes, no sign of any train, nor any explanation of a delay. 0850 approaches and the screens stubbornly maintain the fiction of “0845 on time”. The crowd grows restless; a few sullen looking platform staff stroll up and down but don’t engage with anyone. 0855 comes and goes and still no train.

Finally at 0857, a train appears and the grateful throng swarms aboard, so pleased to be on their way that they disregard the faded, tatty interior. Departure in the end is 14 minutes late, with the screens outside still insisting that we are on time. The announcement from the train manager welcomes us aboard but makes no reference to the delay.

Many cynics would identify this as a familiar scene from stations the length and breadth of the British rail network, unlike our continental neighbours who – they assure us – routinely achieve perfection in the delivery of public transport.

But this scene was played out in Amsterdam Centraal Station, and the train was no insignificant backwater branch line, but a flagship InterCity Benelux express to Rotterdam, Antwerp and Brussels. The coaches had no further to come than from the carriage sidings a mile or so to the east.

I was already cross with Nederlandse Spoorwegen - the main Dutch rail operator. My previous trips had encouraged me to place them on a pedestal of excellence, and among their many perceived attributes was a virtually endless supply of trains between Amsterdam Centraal and Schiphol, so that in order to be at the airport by 9am to meet my friends, I could expect to present myself at the station by 0830 and enjoy a choice of departures for the fifteen minute journey.

I was also cross with myself. I had been running ahead of schedule, but while crossing the tram tracks to reach the station I had noticed a tram with the linguistically confusing destination of “Sorry Geen Dienst” – literally “Sorry Not in Service”, but why with the word “sorry” in English? So obsessed was I with capturing a picture of this destination that I had wasted a good ten minutes chasing two separate trams through the snow, only to fail in both cases to achieve my objective.

It was therefore heading for 0825 when I marched into the station and was aghast to learn that the next train to the airport was not for twenty minutes, and certainly would not have me there by nine. I whiled away a few minutes with a bonus visit to the Secret Bus Station, but soon enough found myself on the platform waiting for the elusive 0845.

My colleagues had texted me to let me know they had landed, and given that I am generally seen as being the most well organised of the trio – a concept that would make my true work colleagues fall about with laughter – I was concerned that my credibility would plunge right at the outset, if I was not there to greet them as they emerged from customs.

Eventually underway on the late running 0845, I felt a bit self-conscious to be travelling such a short distance surrounded by all these international travellers, apparently settled in for the three hour trip to the Belgian capital. It seemed like cheating to get off the Benelux Express at the very first stop, and I almost felt like apologising as I got up to wait by the door. I had little to fear – seconds later the vast majority of my fellow passengers got up too, and I estimate that around 70% of passengers on the InterCity to Brussels travelled no further than the suburbs of Amsterdam!

I sprinted up the steps to the airport terminal and hurried to International Arrivals, reaching the exit barrier at exactly the same moment as my colleagues. Doing my best to display an air of nonchalance, keen to convey the illusion that I had enjoyed a relaxed trip to the airport and a leisurely wait for their arrival, we set off back to the station concourse that I had passed through in a blur, just seconds earlier.

Now my colleagues – both experienced bus industry professionals – are really good company for this kind of trip, equally good at providing market leading bus services back home and well ahead of the game in the field of smart ticketing solutions, but only one had remembered to bring his OV-Chipkaart, that essential tool for anyone seeking to drift aimlessly around the Dutch transport system. Our attempts to buy a new card from NS’s slightly truculent self-service machines failed, but luckily a short queue at the ticket counter took us quickly to an extremely jolly and helpful ticket clerk, and in no time at all the three of us were armed and ready for action.

We were now officially at large, and ready to tackle our two missions of the day – in order of importance, uitsmijters and Maastricht!

The uitsmijter had been one of the most exciting discoveries of our previous Dutch tour. While the ingredients may seem unremarkable in their own right, the particular combination of ham, cheese, fried eggs and bread, cooked together to make an uitsmijter, makes for a mouthwatering breakfast proposition. And since this was to be our only morning in the Netherlands, we could not let it pass without an uitsmijter stop.

Breakfast notwithstanding, our main destination for the day was the town of Maastricht. This community occupies a very unusual geographic position, at the foot of a narrow strip of land dangling precariously from the rest of Holland, hemmed in at close quarters by Belgium and Germany. I had always been curious to visit, imagining a fascinating mix of international cultures.

It is also fascinating for being the home of Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre – an air traffic control centre managing the flow of aircraft through the Single European Sky, and therefore an object of great interest to me given my little known but worryingly geekish obsession with air traffic control. Sadly, my colleagues fail to share this particular interest, so the delights of MUAC would not be on the agenda for this trip and will have to be left for another day (any suitably connected readers of this blog are – of course – entirely welcome to invite me for a tour of this, or indeed any other, ATC facility should they feel inclined to do so!)

The railway line from Schiphol to Maastricht passes through the cities of Utrecht, ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Eindhoven. The first and last of these had been ticked off on our previous trip, but having avoided the middle option last time on the basis of it being unpronounceable, we could no longer suppress our curiosity and ‘s-Hertogenbosch became the nominated destination for uitsmijter consumption.

It is a curious feature of the Amsterdam region, that the location and status of Schiphol Airport as a world gateway, and the belt of corporate office parks around the southern ring, means that the rail network is at least as well orientated for orbital trips around the south of the city as it is for trips to and from the city centre, and a huge volume of trains from all parts of the country reach Schiphol without ever passing through the city centre at all. One such train whisked us from Schiphol to Utrecht in barely half an hour and within six minutes a cross-platform connection saw us making rapid onward progress.

Den Bosch – as we were relieved to discover it is colloquially known – is reportedly a very attractive walled city with a strong mediaeval heritage, but I am unable to confirm this as our interest was confined purely to the pursuit of uitsmijters and buses. The station itself presents an unusual contrast, with very traditional-looking platform canopies contrasting with a much more recently developed station square.

The square offered the choice of two apparently suitable venues for our uitsmijter stop. We marched into the first of these, changed our table three times, eventually arranged ourselves and all our stuff around a big corner table and then discovered the kitchen didn’t open for another hour! The second establishment proved more welcoming and in the perfect location, providing us with the ideal of a traditional Dutch breakfast from a vantage point overlooking the bus station.

We quickly decided that bus operations in the area were divided between Arriva and Veolia and my camera-happy companions set off on their habitual breakneck run round the square, photographing everything with six wheels and windows. I confined my pictorial efforts to this interesting contrast of destinations, which hopefully is not a commentary on the state of the two companies..!

...and finally a chance to capture what had eluded me in Amsterdam, the curious bilingual apology...

In the same spirit, I am minded to reprogramme Velvet destinations to show “Entschuldigung, not in service” or “Désolé, private charter”, except of course that I won’t because I don’t believe in the whole patronising insincere concept of the bus being sorry. It’s not in service, deal with it!

Back on the train after an enjoyable hour, we eventually made it to our main destination for the day, Maastricht. This wasn’t to be our overnight stop – surprisingly given the city’s location it takes quite a long time to head east by public transport into Germany and we didn’t want to waste too much time on the Saturday morning, so our hotel accommodation was booked over the border in Aachen. But Maastricht was the main town of interest and we intended to carry out a detailed exploration – which in our case meant spending more than an hour there!

Initial signs were very unpromising. Despite the attraction of a modest bus station directly outside the railway station – a normal feature of Dutch towns – the immediate vicinity of the station appeared pretty run down and undistinguished. Furthermore, if we wished to proceed by train to Aachen this would involve catching a Veolia service to Heerlen and changing there. The only problem was that – according to the departure screens – all the trains to Heerlen were cancelled!

A brief raid on the Veolia enquiry office opposite the station and perusal of the timetable boards revealed that we had another option to travel to Aachen – Veolia bus number 50 – running every fifteen minutes with a journey time of an hour, so the absence of trains stopped being an issue.

Although the unimpressive surroundings of the railway station caused us briefly to ponder the notion of getting straight out of town, we decided to persevere, and the best thing to do was to jump on a bus and go somewhere. The beauty of OV-Chipkaart is that you don’t have to decide anything in advance – you just touch your smartcard on the reader when you board the bus and touch off when you decide you’ve had enough, and the smartcard reader does the rest.

So we decided to indulge in the bus geek sport of ‘terminus hopping’. This is a game that involves catching a bus route to the outer terminus, walking to the terminus of the nearest adjacent route, catching the bus back into town and then – if time and enthusiasm permits – repeating the process ad nauseam. That way you can cover an entire network without every retracing your steps.

Successful terminus hopping requires a map, a certain amount of intuition and a certain amount of luck. You have to be able to work out from the map when a road is really a road, whether you’ll be able to cross a river at a particular point and whether indeed the buses stop where they say they do.

In previous jobs I have carried out professional terminus hopping as part of my work, and I well remember in the French town of Quimper presenting myself at the rural outer terminus of one of the town routes, in an unlikely location where the driver had clearly never encountered a passenger before – especially not one covered head to toe in mud because I’d had to trudge across a field because there wasn’t a road where the map said there would be one, and needless to say I had managed to fall over. I seem to remember I also had a migraine. Nevertheless, I wiped some mud from my face, looked the driver in the eye, wished him a cheery “bonjour”, stamped my ticket in the validator and sat down. Unabashed, the driver raised an eyebrow, and with a true gallic shrug threw the bus into gear and off we went.

We didn’t have time to cover the whole of the Maastricht network but terminus hopping is a great way to get to see quite a lot of a town very quickly. Based mainly on the fact that it was there loading, we elected to catch a 3 to its western terminus at Wolder, walk to the terminus of the 5 and 6 at Daalhof and return to the city centre from there.

Our decision to persevere with Maastricht was rewarded almost as soon as we turned the corner from the railway station and set forth across the wide and majestic River Maas, then wound our way through the very picturesque city centre, through narrow cobbled streets and big elegant squares.

The 3 turned out to be quite an upmarket route – though busy – with the city centre soon giving way to the university, and relatively upscale housing all the way to the terminus. On arrival at the terminus, my colleagues did their usual trick of running like loons to the other side of the road to take pictures of the bus before it left to go back to town, while I plotted our route across the river to the next terminus – a route that took us within quarter of a mile of the Belgian border.

As we approached the Daalhof terminus, a 5 pulled into the stop and my colleagues once again scared the driver by taking photos of his bus from every conceivable angle before we set off. This route was much more reminiscent of what we in this country would call “good bus territory”, with block after block of high density housing and flats, and provided a complete contrast to the 3. As we approached the centre we could increasingly detect evidence of where tram tracks must have previously been located.

Alighting in the Market Square – sadly ruined, I felt, by the presence of a market – we retired to a bar for our first beer of the day. Challenged to come up with Dutch beer, the waitress failed but did manage to produce a Belgian beer that slightly oddly came with a lump of cheese each! Subsequent research has revealed that this is a fairly normal thing in Belgium, so the fact that we were in Holland gives me sufficient proof that Maastricht is indeed a truly international multicultural city!

My hypothesis having been proven correct, our work in the Netherlands was done and it was time to go to Germany. Arrival back at the station revealed that the trains to Heerlen were now running again, but by that time we had decided to take the bus, and were soon on our way on the 50.

This, like our journey on the 5, was operated by a VDL Ambassador, very much a ubiquitous Dutch bus coming from the DAF stable. At home I am increasingly unimpressed by the fragile, lightweight products such as the Dennis Dart and by the time we were on the 50 I had resolved that from now on I will only ever buy heavyweight vehicles that have that solid, robust, reassuring feel of the vehicles we used during our travels.

An effortless hour later and we were in Aachen. Most West European countries don’t really do borders, and to many Brits it would be quite an alien notion that a bus from one country could routinely travel to another country, on a normal stopping service every fifteen minutes without there being any evidence of a border having been crossed other than a change in the registration plates of the passing cars.

It’s not just a Schengen thing either – on a recent journey from Switzerland to Italy on a local mountain train, the only evidence of being in a different country was the presence of Italian flags rather than Swiss flags on the station building.

So here’s the evidence of a Dutch bus stopped at Aachen railway station, with the traditional “H” sign of the standard German bus stop. Being around 5pm it was picking up a very heavy load for its return journey, implying that there is nothing at all untoward about living in Holland, working in Germany and commuting across the border every morning and evening.

Having dumped our bags at our hotel, we went off to explore Aachen. During our journey across the non-existent border, it had been snowing with increasing intensity and there was plenty of snow and ice underfoot as we wandered through the city centre. Needless to say everything was carrying on as normal, and the evening rush hour was well underway.

After a long walk round the ring road we eventually found the travel office of the local bus operator ASEAG, where the customer service staff revealed to me that we had to pay for a map of the network – an unbelievable concept!

One Euro lighter, and with a map that required most of the office floor space to unfold, we decided we had time for one more terminus hop before dinner. To our immense excitement we had seen double articulated Citaros, and we decided to ride one on the 5 from the bus station (Bushof) to the outer terminus at Brand Schulzentrum.

This trip yielded the first of several grumpy bus drivers. He had just taken over the bus from one of his colleagues, and we boarded with me at the front of the line clutching our money. We then had to wait while he pointedly adjusted everything in his cab that he could possibly adjust, all the while avoiding any eye contact or acknowledgement of me, despite being stood right next to him. The seat went up, down and back up again; then forward then back; the steering wheel was taken through all its available planes of motion; both mirrors were adjusted; the ticket machine was programmed at length.

Eventually the activity stopped and the driver just sat there looking straight ahead. I took this as my cue to speak. I asked for three singles. The driver interrogated me about where we were going without once making eye contact, didn’t tell me the price and just waited for me to put the money down. Luckily I had worked it out while we were waiting, but the ignorance was breathtaking. The tickets were issued without a further word and we were off on the long walk to the back of the three-piece bus.

By now it was completely dark and we had no idea where we were, we were just enjoying being on the back seat of a bus that seemed to stretch most of the way to the terminus without even moving. Once the standing load had subsided we got the map out – an activity that required two of us to sit in opposite window seats and hold the map outstretched between us – and kept track of where we were.

Luckily it is standard in Holland and Germany for buses to have “next stop” screens – surely the “must have” accessory for British operators for the future and we managed to keep track by following the stops on the map.

On arrival at Brand we slithered through the snow and ice to the main road, where a 35 duly turned up with just a normal articulated Citaro to take us the direct route back to the city centre. Such a contrast with the driver – we had a very helpful (if rather gruff) female, and she was very concerned to know if we would be travelling back on the bus, in which case she would have sold us a mini group ticket – which is what we should have been advised to do on the outbound 5.

Despite the upturn in customer service, there was no sentiment. On arrival back at Bushof there was a driver change, and she was off the bus and gone virtually before any passenger had even set foot on the pavement!

A leisurely walk through the old town centre eventually brought us to the Rose am Dom restaurant, which proved to be uninspiring. The now familiar Germanic abruptness was much in evidence here too – we had made the fatal mistake of putting the cameras and a couple of timetable leaflets on the table, to be greeted with the stern reprimand “you will clear now” as the waitress arrived with the food.

By the time we were walking back to the hotel the temperature had dropped to around -10 degrees and shortly after I got into my room it started snowing very heavily, huge snowflakes that were clearly settling thickly on every visible surface. My excitement at being in a country I love was tempered with the nagging concern of whether we’d be able to get out of there in the morning!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Going Dutch

A recent free weekend gave the opportunity for an escape to the continent. Along with a couple of bus industry colleagues, the plan was to make our way across the Netherlands, into Germany, up the Rhine, across to the Harz Mountains then finally to Berlin for the plane home. The rules were fairly simple – public transport all the way, sampling as many different operators using as many different modes as possible. We tend not to dwell anywhere too long – you can learn an awful lot about somewhere in very little time – so this seemed like a reasonable adventure for four days.

The collective agreement was to start at Schiphol Airport on Friday morning and head straight off to the south of the country, the rest of the Netherlands having been decisively covered in a previous trip. However I have never spent any time in Amsterdam before, so decided to travel the evening before and explore the city on my own, before linking up with my colleagues on Friday morning.

The Teutonic theme to the trip started before I even left the UK however, as complex domestic arrangements meant I had to break the rules right at the start and drive my car to Gatwick Airport, to endure the misery of long-stay parking. What more appropriate carriage could be waiting to whisk me to the terminal than the first of many Citaros! With Britain in the grip of arctic temperatures, it at least offered the attraction of being warm!

In no time at all I was in the airport, where my holiday was rudely interrupted by a final dose of real life. Having earlier had the office phone diverted to my mobile, I had forgotten to cancel the diversion before leaving work, with the result that Velvet Enquiries were briefly handled from a bench outside Starbucks in Gatwick North Terminal. My final moments before exiting the UK were spent remotely reuniting two Thornden School parents with their offspring’s lost PE kits!

The most impressive feature of Gatwick Airport is the world’s largest air passenger bridge – a walkway that takes you thirty two metres above the ground and over the top of one of the taxiways, allowing travellers the highly unusual sight of aircraft taxying beneath them! It was with childlike excitement that I discovered that my plane’s departure gate required me to cross this bridge and I lingered for as long as I dare, until finally an obliging British Airways plane turned and passed beneath my feet.

Unfortunately I had lingered so long that most of the rest of the passengers had overtaken me, and with Easyjet operating a “first come first shoved” approach to seat allocation I was alarmed to reach the back of the boarding queue with the departure gate still a distant speck on the horizon! Luckily I was able to board just in time to nab the last remaining window seat and in good time we were aloft, on course for the Dutch capital.

Having left Gatwick in temperatures some way below zero, it was a faint hope that the continent would be enduring a heatwave, but nevertheless my hopes that things might warm up a bit were soon dashed by the Dutch captain’s brief announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, the weather in Amsterdam is the same as in London, only more cold!”

My regression into childhood continued throughout the flight as I sat with face pressed to the window on a beautifully clear night, taking in such panoramic scenes as Southdown PSV’s depot on the outskirts of Crawley, the elegant seaside metropolis of Southend-on-Sea, bustling Europoort and an accident scene on the A4 motorway, before finally settling down bang on time on the north-east facing runway at Schiphol.

Having revived my treasured OV-Chipkaart with credit, I was soon enjoying the smooth comfort of a double-deck train ride into the capital city, where I emerged from Central Station to find it snowing. Luckily my hotel was only a short walk and I was soon ensconsed in my top floor hotel room at the surprisingly characterful Tulip Inn Amsterdam Centre.

Having dumped my bag and with not a moment to lose, I launched myself once more into the sub-zero temperatures outside and immediately realised my hotel was right in the middle of the city’s infamous red light district! Being of faint heart and prudish manner, I of course kept my eyes straight ahead as I wandered along street after street lined with establishments of dubious virtue.

I couldn’t help but be amused at the sight of a shop apparently selling nothing but vibrators, although it was not so much the store’s contents that amused me as its name – “Na Na, The Most Vibrating Shop”. I would have taken a photo but frankly, I wasn’t brave enough to stand in the middle of a busy red light district aiming my camera at a shop window full of sex toys!

My progress into the heart of the city’s seedy underbelly was marked by escalating fruit references. What started with a shop a few doors from the hotel selling “banana toys”, gave way a few yards later to a club advertising (among other attractions) a “banana show” before finally climaxing a block further on with the proudly named “Banana Bar – Live F***ing”!

I had heard many tales from friends in the UK of Amsterdam’s notorious attractions and had always assumed them to be grossly exaggerated. What I had imagined would be maybe one or two streets turned into block after block of lurid establishments.

Given that the majority of voices I heard as I wandered the streets were British males hunting in packs, I can only imagine that this side to what is probably otherwise a charming city delivers significant tourist income. Otherwise, why would a country as ordered and efficient as the Netherlands tolerate such a sordid centrepiece to its capital city?

I’d love to remember Amsterdam for its elegant buildings, graceful canals and bustling precincts, but in fact my abiding memory will be of scantily dressed ladies writhing behind red-hued glass doors, tapping on the windows to attract the attention of passers by, about as unerotic scene as it is possible to imagine on that freezing night!

It was with some relief that I finally emerged from a side street to be confronted with the impressive facade of Centraal Station, and decided that the only late night activity that I needed was some serious train watching, so I spent a pleasant half an hour dodging the drug dealers on the station platforms.

For me the romance of train travel is no better summed up than by a departing sleeper train, conveying its weary occupants on life-changing journeys to distant cities many hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Whenever I’m in a foreign city I love to watch such trains heading on their way, and as the City Night Line to Zurich drew out of the platform, I imagined the destinies of those whose faces peered at me through the windows. For some maybe only a short vacation, but for many their last glimpse of familiar comforts, knowing they would wake up the following morning to a different existence, with all the uncertainty and excitement that entailed!

As I explored further, my melancholy musings were soon banished by the most exciting of all possible discoveries – a secret bus station! Hidden at first floor level at the back of Centraal Station, this vibrant terminal hummed with life even at 10 o’clock at night, despatching buses into the outskirts and surrounding regions well loaded with Friday night travellers.

The most exciting feature of Amsterdam’s Secret Bus Station however has to be its amazing Control Room. Quite unlike any similar facility I have encountered anywhere on my travels, I will be making a point of sending a picture to the architects employed by Sainsbury’s on the proposed redevelopment of Eastleigh Bus Station, and making it a condition of my support that the town’s future transport interchange enjoys such a space aged centrepiece!

Finally exhausted, I returned to my room and lay down to sleep, only to wake up later feeling quite disorientated and dizzy – quite amazing given that I had (unusually for me) consumed no alcohol at all! It was only after sitting for a few moments to regain my bearings that I realised the entire hotel room sloped from right to left, with the top of the bed several inches lower than the foot! How ironic that of all the things that I had seen in the Dutch capital that could have caused a rush of blood to my head, in the event it was a wonky hotel room that did so!

The following morning dawned colder still and snowier, and after a brief farewell visit to the secret bus station I was on a train back to Schiphol Airport, ready to meet my colleagues and continue the adventure...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Time for 't'

One thing I could always do was spell. From the earliest age I can remember, I would look down my nose with all the supercilious smugness of the insufferable teacher's pet that I strove to be, as the other children put their 'e' before their 'i', allowed a silent 'k' or 'w' to slip away undetected, or were in two minds over which 'too' to resort to.

But I have finally been outwitted by the residents of Winchester. From the start of this week we have been operating a short term contract for Hampshire County Council, providing local routes 2 and 6a in Winchester until June. The 2 is easy. Oliver's Battery and Badger Farm hold no fear, but the 6a has me beaten!

It goes to Abbotts Barton, but in my mind - no matter how hard I try to train myself - it goes to Abbots Barton. Even though a simple glance at the map reveals the truth, and the tender documents and existing publicity reinforce the point, I cannot bring myself to double that 't'! Every time I write it, I write 'Abbots' and then - if I'm lucky and remember - go back and correct it.

I don't know why this should be so. It has something to do with the poor, innocent people of Abbots Langley, a Hertfordshire village that I served at the first bus company that gave me a home - the late, great Buffalo Travel. I must have read and written 'Abbots' so many times on official forms, in publicity and probably replies to complaint letters that I have that spelling firmly embedded in my mind.

(As a complete aside, in Buffalo days I once registered the evening service on route 344 through that village entirely in German - von Hemel Hempstead Busbahnhof nach Croxley Green Reptonweg ueber Watford Exchangestrasse - and the then Office of the Traffic Commissioner accepted it!)

To my shame the timetable leaflets refer to Abbots Barton, because I drafted and proof-checked them and failed to spot it. I only realised today that the website referred to Abbots Barton throughout, and even now the Bright Tech destinations on some of our Darts show '6a Abbots Barton' because I programmed them.

Luckily the Mobitec kit on the Solos that we are actually using has been programmed by our Commercial Assistant Mikey, and he has no such hang-ups. Indeed it is he - displaying the full condescension of one half my age and twice my ego - who has gleefully pointed out most of my slip-ups so far! He has also designed the roadside publicity which is equally correct and has attracted much favourable comment.

So all is not lost, but I'm getting to the age where old habits are hard to break, so I apologise in advance if the odd Abbot manages to slip through the net in the future! If it gets too bad, I might just have to Hyde!

The good news is that the new routes have started off extremely well. Timekeeping has not been the issue we were told to expect, with both routes running comfortably to schedule, and early passenger numbers are exceeding expectations.

Hopefully we are also exceeding theirs - certainly many positive comments have been received about the vehicle, the publicity and the drivers. Steve and Geoff are the regular presenters, backed up yesterday and today by Mikey doing the 'meeting and greeting'. Indeed for a while today all three were on the bus together, outnumbering the passengers at times.

During today's brief period of triple manning, Steve (or 'Scooter' as some of his former colleagues might apparently recognise him) managed to escape for long enough to take this rather nice shot of 222 pausing at Winchester Station on its way to Badger Farm.

The 6a also appears to have its own Les, which will no doubt add interest and colour, and it is already clear that the regular congregation have their own interpretation of where the bus is required to stop, which bears little resemblance to such trivial issues as where there happen to be signs on poles saying "bus stop"! But these are the kind of routes we love, and we look forward to being of service to our new Winchester clientele for some time to come.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Just when you thought Christmas was over...

Before we get too far into January and memories fade, it's probably worth reflecting on how the Christmas period went, if only as an aide memoire to myself later in the year when I'm trying to work out what to run over the 2012/13 festive period!

The first day on which services were modified was Christmas Eve, when we finished at around 8pm. From a strictly commercial point of view that was probably right, given that the evening was obviously going to be quiet, but Karl - my controller - who was driving the other late shift, agreed with my perspective that there was a reasonable number of people enquiring about services later in the evening and that in the event we would quite happily have gone through to the end of service. That's one to ponder for next year. Or possibly not, because Christmas Eve is a Monday in 2012 so unless anything changes all our buses are off the road by 8pm anyway!

Readers may recall from my last post that I was ruminating on whether we should have run service on Boxing Day. My perception is that 2011 saw a sharp increase in the number of operators around the country that did operate and I can see it becoming increasingly taken for granted over the next few years that this is a day on which bus services do run. Indeed, one or two figures I have heard from operator colleagues that will remain nameless, for commercial receipts on routes in different parts of the country are astonishingly high and if those levels are typical it should be a no brainer.

The difficulty for us is that - for the time being at least - a Sunday service is probably the most appropriate level, and of course we don't have any Sunday contracts, nor do Hampshire County Council make it a requirement for contractors to provide a service on Boxing Day. Of course on New Year's Day this year (more anon) we provided a commercial Sunday service in the absence of the two normal contractors and it is most likely that we would consider this kind of scenario again.

The period between Christmas and New Year was a normal weekday service for us, and that allows us to keep things simple. I am not a fan of operators with hugely complex arrangements with some services operating Saturdays, others weekdays, and others a special service. My experience of the travelling public is that even if you provide the most elaborate publicity in the world, as long as it's not a bank holiday they will expect Thursday buses to operate on a Thursday etc, so you risk upsetting loyal, regular customers for a tiny saving.

New Year's Eve we ran through until the end of service. It was quiet on the C1 and E8, but seems to have been about a normal level of Saturday evening patronage on the A. However, there was a great atmosphere with the customers on the buses, and many of them were regulars and very appreciative of the service - including the four who caught the 2340 A (none of whom were still on the bus at midnight, so I celebrated the arrival of 2012 on my own, as predicted, about halfway up Wildern Lane!). Definitely worth doing in my opinion, for the benefit of those regulars.

Once again it's a Monday this year so unless anything changes, there is no evening service on our routes in any event, and I'm not sure we would create one specially, but I'm definitely glad we did it this year.

I'm even more glad we ran New Year's Day. We didn't carry a huge number of people, but the reaction from those we did carry was bordering on euphoric! They were hugely grateful to have the service. Our drivers also saw huge numbers of people waiting at bus stops for other people's services, and had of course explained to them that there wouldn't be any, and the reaction from those people was disbelief that almost the entire industry had decided to take the day off on what - for them - was pretty much a normal Sunday.

On a brief visit to Eastleigh Bus Station to mid-afternoon to see how our drivers were getting on, I was ambushed by a couple who had been waiting for a Bluestar 2. Our driver Mikey had seen them from the end of the road, beckoned them down to the bus, explained the situation to them and then transported them into Eastleigh. They were just about to board for the trip home and were over the moon with joy about the fact that we were there for them.

In summary it's probably fair to say that from a strictly commercial standpoint, it remains a weak time of year. The easy option would be to pull the buses off the road at 8pm on Christmas and New Year's Eve and not come out on Boxing Day or New Year's Day.

However, we carry many loyal regulars who give us their business all through the year. They want to go out and about at Christmas just as much as anyone else does. Why does the industry think it's acceptable to abandon those people just because we fancy a day off or an evening off? We're in a service industry, and service means more than abandoning your regular customers because you won't be able to make a profit out of them for one or two days, when each of them is worth several hundred pounds to the business over the course of a year. I'm happy that we provided the service that we did over Christmas 2011/12, but with hindsight we could have done more!

And while I'm on the subject of abandoning customers, I do want to fit in a quick rant about other industries that shut down for the whole period. Our ability to provide service is dependent on having buses on the road. Why do so many parts suppliers think it is acceptable to simply stop providing service at lunchtime on Christmas Eve, and resume some time in early January? Why do their entire staff have to have a week and a half off, when their customers - who they claim to value so highly - are still slaving away. Frankly, it is a disgusting tactic and if I had the purchasing power to withdraw my business from suppliers who indulge in these long shutdowns, I would do so today.

Many industries do it, so it is unfair to single out one particular type of business. We had a similar problem where we are trying to get timetable leaflets printed for the new 2 and 6a routes in Winchester, but the design company we use - who happily didn't think that having someone on duty on 29th December was such an unreasonable expectation - couldn't even get quotes for print.

We manage our service levels, using reduced staff numbers to reflect reduced demand. They can probably cope with fewer admin staff, so there should still be plenty of scope to accommodate a desire to give staff more time off over the period. Why can they not manage the situation in this way, rather than simply locking the gates and telling their loyal customers to get stuffed?

If I put a notice out on all our buses this year saying "there will be no buses from 3pm on Friday 21st December 2012 until Wednesday 2nd January 2013, nevertheless we wish all our customers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year", I wonder what reaction we might get?

On a brighter note, I am very optimistic about 2012, so I do - genuinely - wish all readers of this blog a Happy New Year, even if I am a week late!