Friday, 29 March 2013

Homeward bound by road, rail and sea

Day two started with breakfast at Tiffany’s.  We were uninspired by the prospect of a Royal Albion fry-up, and worried about being swept up into a sea of coach parties and being whisked away for an inadvertent tour of Eastbourne - even if it would include a visit to Beachy Head, a cream tea and a nice sit down on the prom.

So we checked out of our regal accommodation and set off under Keith’s guidance in the direction of some local cafes that he had scouted earlier in the morning.

Along the way, we paused to admire Brighton & Hove’s new travel shop in North Street.  This really is an object lesson in how to present public transport in a positive, welcoming way.  Featuring a spacious, bright interior with plenty of information on display and advisors on hand, and situated right in the heart of Brighton’s shopping area, this outlet really brings public transport into a modern retail setting.

Further along the road, you might be forgiven for thinking that Brighton & Hove is not the only bus company to realise the importance of a strong retail presence…

Keith’s scouting trip had identified several possible candidates for breakfast, but the pictures of old buses hanging on the wall of Tiffany’s were clearly the clincher.  The friendly, helpful server was coping manfully despite running the whole show on his own having been let down by his business partner (“she’s still in bed, the lazy cow”).

He also had no change, and just to prove that the bus industry is not unique, several customers were sent to a shop next door to get change – although at least he didn’t refuse to cook their breakfast until they did so, or try to give them a change voucher.  In several cases, the problem was overcome simply by negotiating the price of breakfast to the nearest round number.

During breakfast we were again able to impress the locals with our ability to cover every available piece of furniture with maps and timetables and soon decided that the next stage of our adventure would be in the hands of new local independent – one of several companies to emerge following the demise of Countryliner in late 2012.

Brand names ending in .com were fashionable in the so called “dot com bubble” of the late nineties when – by coincidence – virtually all of’s fleet was manufactured.

Branding a nineties fleet with a nineties brand name is of course a genius attempt at creating a heritage fleet without anyone noticing.

If you buy a Bristol something-or-other from the fifties, paint it green with a cream stripe down the side and apply any fleetname in a suitably florid typeface, everyone can see what you’re up to straight away.  Drop words like “Tilling” and “superintendent” into the conversation and you need a drip tray for all the dribble hitting the floor as grown men are reduced to gibbering toddlers.

Replace fifties with nineties and write “.com” on the side and you’ve done exactly the same thing with Dennis Darts. And you don’t even need a drip tray.  Well you do, clearly, because they’re Dennis Darts so they will routinely leak from every orifice but at least that’s what the drip tray is designed for.

For proof that I’m on to something, look no further than the fact that is associated with a coach company called – guess what – Heritage!

The P-reg Dart that picked us up for a ride on the 40 to Haywards Heath even had period moquette – a red chequered pattern of a design commonly found on Plaxton dealer stock buses in the late  nineties.

But one thing to be said about is that they ooze enthusiasm.  The website – while doing its best to stick to the design principles of the late nineties – is packed full of useful and interesting information and they seem to have the customer very much at the heart of their thinking – an approach which of course endears me to them immediately.  Our driver lived up to the image – helpful and friendly, if slightly haphazard.

All was going superbly until we reached Burgess Hill town centre when the air system on our Dart decided that one morning’s work without a failure was too much to expect (this is an attitude shared by air systems on Darts everywhere) and the doors failed.

After much forelorn prodding of the “open” and “close” buttons, and with a short queue of nice old ladies waiting outside wondering why they couldn’t join the rest of us on board, our driver called for medical advice.

As he jumped out of the cab it became clear that what he made up for in enthusiasm he lacked in height, and when the fitter on the other end of the phone asked him to access the door controls situated in a locker above the door, we could see ourselves being there a while.

Sadly for the step ladder industry in Burgess Hill, our Keith spotted the predicament and raced to the rescue, and with the driver relaying instructions and the much taller Keith twiddling the pressure control, within seconds the doors were operational again.  As our fourth emergency service returned jubilantly to his seat (he is, after all, a very nice man), the elderly gent sat across the aisle enquired if he would be available to ride round on all their buses, all the time!

Meanwhile the heritage theme continued as I was descending into nostalgia.  The route of the 40 is almost identical to the all stations rail replacement route from Brighton to Haywards Heath – for no particular reason that I could tell you, my favourite of the many rail replacement routes upon which I have worked.

I hadn’t worked this route since 2007 so for me it was an “all my yesterdays” trip down memory lane.  At that time the newly created Go South Coast – with me in charge of the eastern front as Area Director for Solent Blue Line and Southern Vectis – was heavily involved in providing buses for Southern Railways weekend rail replacement.

When the Brighton main line was being dug up, the A23 between Crawley and the coast resembled an episode of Wacky Races, with double deckers of every shape and colour being fired off from each end every few minutes for the non-stop journey.

But for the more discerning driver, the opportunity was often available to borrow a coach from the newly acquired Marchwood Motorways, and work the slow road from Three Bridges to the English Channel, taking in Balcombe, Haywards Heath, Wivelsfield, Burgess Hill, Hassocks, Preston Park and Brighton.

A certain amount of smugness was called for as most drivers from our neck of the woods didn’t know the all stations route and it was nice to have one up on them.  It must be said my smugness diminished slightly the day a gentleman decided to count to two in his trousers on a particularly hot day with the heating stuck on in my coach.  And then after getting the coach cleaned out and virtually fumigated, he did the same on the way back.  But that’s a story for another day.

Back to the present day, and our arrival in Haywards Heath was enlivened by the sight of an Ikarus DAF SB220 still in full Wilts & Dorset livery and apparently recently acquired by

This turned out to be the only memorable thing about our visit to Haywards Heath and within minutes we were on a First Capital Connect train bound for Gatwick Airport and our first busway of the day.

We emerged from the railway station into the South Terminal at Gatwick jostling with business people and leisure travels, bound for far flung cities on distant continents.  Our destination was Crawley.

For an international airport, the bus experience starts so well.  On all the signs within the terminal building are prominent directions to Metrobus local bus services – even incorporating the Metrobus logo, a rare feat on what are normally dull, neutral signs.  Metrobus have elevated themselves to the same status as the top level hotel brands and certainly have greater prominence than the car hire companies, and all credit to them.

Sadly the experience unravels slightly when you discover that the route pointed out by the signs takes you out through a fire exit, down several flights of stairs, along the side of a busy dual carriageway, through a dark, dingy underpass and back up the other side again.

Once you get there, the bus stop is superb.  A huge shelter, first class electronic information and a wide supply of timetable leaflets to pick up.

I have no idea whether the route from the terminal to the stop is an airport or highway authority issue, or indeed whether any improvements are planned, but it is desperately sad when compared with the first class infrastructure before and after, to have to endure this dismal hike through the back of beyond to connect the two.

I am a huge fan of Metrobus, can only dream of building a fleet and network as impressive as theirs and have particular admiration for the way they have transformed the image of public transport in an area where once it had been run into the ground.

It saddens me therefore to report that our short trip on Fastway 10 was an anti-climax.   I have never liked the Scania OmniCity, finding them to be claustrophobic, and this example seemed to have more bars and railings than a children’s playpen, giving the impression that we were incarcerated in a blue and orange prison.

Our prison warder, ensconced behind the steering wheel, did little to dispel this impression with his spartan approach to customer service.  Not actually rude, but no welcome, pleases or thank yous and the distinct impression that we passengers were merely an inconvenience to be endured for the eight hours between coming to work and going home from work.

We knew that we wouldn’t see much actual busway on this trip – most of the guided track is out to the south of the town centre so we had to make do with a short stretch across a roundabout.  But we stoked ourselves with anticipation nevertheless, enjoyed the moment when it came and it qualified as our first busway ride of the day.

Alighting in Crawley Bus Station, we briefly debated finding somewhere for lunch, but then remembered that we were in Crawley and that the best strategy was therefore to leave quickly.

Ideally, we would have liked to have wended our way gradually westwards in a mirror of the previous day’s trip, but Alex and Keith had to catch a train home from Southampton early that evening so we were constrained for time.  The next planned move was therefore a hefty jump by rail through the scenic Arun Valley to Portsmouth to sample our second busway of the day.

One of many things that Metrobus take seriously is timetables, and their bus station travel shop was festooned with interesting publicity.  I got quite excited about a possible option involving a quick trip to Horsham on the 23 to see the newest part of the Metrobus empire and a new bus station to boot.  We could have continued our rail journey from there, but a quick check of the National Rail website revealed that Southern Railway were having a bad day, and the train we would have needed to catch had been cancelled.

We therefore reverted to plan A and crossed the road to Crawley Station.  After settling ourselves into the relaxing surroundings of an almost empty Southern train and wallpapering the carriage with bus timetables to while away the journey, we were able to pass a very agreeable hour chilling out after a frenetic morning.

Our train was actually headed for Southampton and we were required to change in Cosham to reach Portsmouth, so somewhere along the way we realized it would be much more fun to leave the railway at Cosham and work our way into the city centre on the bus – particularly as it was not long since the network had been completely overhauled.

We soon found ourselves at the tiny little bus station just south of Cosham railway station, pondering our options.  The level of service available from here is excellent, with several high frequency services available.  We worked out that we had a choice of three routes for a direct journey into Portsmouth city centre, with a combined frequency of 16 buses per hour.

However, it seems a pity that despite all the fanfare surrounding the launch of the new network, First don’t seem to have found a way to present this kind of headline information drawing attention to the frequencies available.

The only way we could work out the offer was by wandering round to each individual stop and checking the timetable displays on the stops – and even then it helped to have a reasonable knowledge of the area to be able to filter out the options that were less direct.  So I got to the right answer by comparing four different timetables on two different stops, and I wonder how many potential casual users would have that level of patience and determination.

When the bus did arrive – after only a few moments of waiting - it was a pretty standard corporate First Group Dart, tidy and cleanly presented and gratifyingly busy.   The driver helpfully guided us to tickets that would cover us for all our planned journeys across the First Hampshire network and we sat down.

Immediately on so doing, I was propelled about seven years back in time.  This bus had clearly been based at Southampton depot at some time in its history and since moving east, it appeared to have evaded any efforts to update its internal adverts.

Among the usual depressing selection of posters highlighting the perils of sexual diseases, domestic abuse and drug addiction was a particularly aggressive message apparently produced by Southampton City Council and partners, telling us in no uncertain terms that we WOULD be prosecuted (What for?  Riding on a bus in Portsmouth?)

The poster attracted my attention only because it featured the Solent Blue Line logo from the mid-2000s, and one which disappeared from use in 2007 shortly after I too disappeared from use at Go South Coast!.  An unexpected reminder of my past in an unexpected place!

It was of course superseded by the Bluestar identity, so if nothing else it gave me another excuse to remind the award-winning Alex Hornby that the award-winning Bluestar brand was invented by me!  To be fair he has never been slow to acknowledge this, but I still enjoy gently winding him up about it from time to time.

Finding ourselves at the Hard Interchange some half an hour later, flanked by the ultra-modern Gunwharf Quays development on one side and the immaculately restored HMSVictory on the other, the next stage of our adventure was to take to the high seas aboard the Gosport Ferry.

This delightfully municipal affair shuttles backwards and forwards all day on its five hundred metre voyage across the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour (and that’s not as simple as it sounds – in 2005 during the preparations for Trafalgar 200 I was present when the US Navy lost a boatload of cadets for around half an hour somewhere between the two).

The slogan of the Gosport Ferry – “it’s shorter by water” – was clearly inspired by the same advertising genius who coined such memorable phrases as “a lot less fuss by bus”.  It lives up to its billing though, and in no time at all we were marching up the gangway filled with excitement at the prospect of our long-awaited ride on Eclipse.

Even more excitement was generated by the presence of no fewer than two information offices in Gosport Bus Station.  Most towns this size would be lucky to retain one such outlet these days, but as you enter the terminal you find yourself torn by the attractions of the tourist information office on your right or the First enquiry office on your left.  A quick check of both revealed a virtually identical stock of transport publicity so we were soon in possession of yet more timetables for our collections.

Eclipse is a superb project.  Many years in the gestation, the heart of it is an arrow-straight dedicated busway built on the trackbed of an old railway line.  Buses using the busway can escape the chronic traffic congestion of the parallel A32 to provide a fast, comfortable journey along the Gosport – Fareham peninsula.

It seems a pity therefore that the start of the Eclipse experience is very low-key.  I had imagined the departure bays would be decorated in the brand identity, with welcoming messages to make potential customers feel that they were going to experience something different.

Instead, while there is an information panel in the bus station concourse, the bays themselves only identify themselves with small standard corporate signs referring to “First E1 E2”.  It is left to the potential user to work out for themselves that this is the gateway to the region’s most exciting, state of the art transport link.

Once aboard the bus, everything is different.  With a fleet of new vehicles boasting a very high-spec interior, it is clear that no effort has been spared to consider how to make the service as attractive as possible.  And despite a slow journey out of Gosport, once on to the busway we could really appreciate the quality of the infrastructure.

The vehicles, the “track” itself and the bus stop amenities are all very impressive and it is clear why this project will attract people for whom public transport would never previously have been an option.

Fareham Bus Station seems to have benefitted from a little more effort to promote the new link, with prominent welcoming messages at the entrance, but still with those dreaded “First E1 E2” signs in the bus station itself.

I suppose the conclusion is, fantastic product, shame about the terminals!

The last leg of our trip – simply to get Alex and Keith back to Southampton to catch their homeward train – consisted of an hour-long ride aboard Solent Ranger X4.

This is a new First route that emerged from last year’s network changes across the region, all part of an impressive effort to tidy up the historically messy service offer in the semi-urban sprawl west of Fareham.  The route runs all the way from Southampton to Portsmouth, meeting myriad requests for a through service between the two, albeit with a long journey time.  And whatever one thinks of the First livery, the brand looks impressive in the flesh and certainly gives a big lift to the S-reg Darts to which it is applied.

Sadly all this excitement hadn’t quite succeeded in energizing our driver.  Arriving early at 1551 for a 1555 departure, but with a crew change required, the new driver emerged from the office at 1558 and it was around 1602 before we were underway.  The full seated load however was impressive all the same, and it’s just a pity that the road network in the area frustrates any attempt to provide a journey time that lives up to the “X” in the service number.

Back in Southampton at the end of an intense two days roaming the public transport network of the south of England, we managed to summon up just enough energy to drag ourselves to a restaurant for food and beer before my travelling colleagues set off for home.

Before we started, we had been afraid that we might have found this trip boring.  Compared to our previous European adventures where we had new places to explore and different cultures to experience, on this occasion we were relying solely on the transport to provide the excitement.  We had wondered whether there was enough entertainment to be found in sitting on buses all day.

But to our pleasant surprise we had found that on each leg of our journey there had been something of interest – whether it be the staff, the vehicles, the infrastructure, our fellow travellers, or a combination of all of them – we had never been bored and never been short of things to talk about.

All we have to decide now is where to go next!


  1. Great entertainment Phil. Thanks very much.
    One wonders why you tried to change trains at Cosham for Portsmouth, as Havant would have been a better choice as several SWT services go through there to Portsmouth. Same platform. You could have even "discovered" the joys of Havant Bus Station!! Simply loved your description of Cosham bus station. It's been called Cosham bus compound for many a year & the original tram shelters that were there are now at Gunwharf Quays as some kind of kiosk/cafe.

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