Monday, 29 July 2013

Double-Yellowed Madness

Strange things happen on Mondays.
I don't know if it's the effect the weekend has on some people, but here we are again with something else to exasperate us at the start of the week.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is supposedly proposing a 15 minute "grace" period to park on double yellow lines.
This, apparently, is to help the High Street in its battle to survive. 
Nice thought, Eric. And I can see, however vaguely, the thought process behind it.
Now let's imagine this comes to pass.
We already have a major problem with illegal parking. The "l couldn't give a monkeys" brigade already have it far too easy. And I was sickened only yesterday to read an article in one of the Sunday papers about assaults on traffic wardens, complete with CCTV footage of some neanderthal attempting a kung-fu kick at a hapless emoloyee doing his job.
So how on earth does Pickles envisage this working?
Employ a new army of traffic wardens to enforce the 15 minute plan? Because as sure as eggs is eggs, Britain is no longer a nation of people who play by the rules. We'll have "I was only there for 15 minutes" pleas from the usual scallywags who've been there 3 hours.
And what about the delays it will potentially cause? In Wolverhampton the other day my bus was caught in a delay caused by some prat fixing his car stereo on the side of the road, door wide open, couldn't care a jot. Every extra obstruction makes buses more unreliable.  Well done Mr. Pickles - some joined up Government thinking there. 
Here's what I would do to help the High Street:
- pass legislation to force out of town shopping centres to charge for car parking - with profits ploughed back into public transport improvements.
- make car park charges on shopping centres at least 10% higher than the average bus fare, ensuring that travelling in by bus - helping the environment - would always work out better than driving.
- promote a scheme that gives widespread discounts to bus users and cyclists - again incentivising use of these modes.
Of course this won't happen. Government isn't in the business of upsetting large retail businesses. And there still remains large numbers of retailers who believe the motorist is king for their business, when the evidence shows that buses deliver more people to the High Street. 
So if Eric's plans come to pass, we can look forward to more journey misery in our towns and cities.
Absolute madness.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Getting Better Buses - and sometimes not!

National Express West Midlands operates a fleet of hybrid double deckers on route 1 in the Black Country

In my last blog, I mused over Quality Contracts in the bus industry. Do we need one? Are they political? (Everything is political!) The advantages & disadvantages...
Today, I did something rather simple. I just went for a ride on some of my local buses. I wasn't actually thinking about anything - just taking some time to let my thoughts wander for a while....
But inevitably I did start thinking.
I decided to have a ride on National Express West Midlands route 1 from Dudley to Tettenhall Wood. A recent recipient of hybrid double deckers in attractive green livery, to press home the credentials. Very smart too - and dare I say it; the green version of the NX livery is possibly more attractive than the standard one....but I digress....
As I glided, sometimes silently, trolleybus style, across the Black Country, I thought about how much things have really improved for regular users of this and other routes in the West Midlands over recent years.
Change can be unnerving, especially when it comes to bus services. In the last 5 years, we bus users in Centro-land have seen a huge change to what is on offer. "Network Reviews" have seen many routes changed, revised or renumbered (and I'm still fairly breathless trying to catch up!) - the bus user of 5+ years ago would see a significantly different network today.
We've also seen improvements that, whilst not always immediately evident, are most definitely there. Brand spanking new bus stations in Wolverhampton and Stourbridge, lots of new shelters, and lots of new and refurbished buses.
It's easy to be critical about a bus service, and sometimes if you use a service day in, day out, a regular problem can grind you down. But for users of route 1, they can have no complaints, certainly about the quality of the vehicles - these are a step change to what previously plied the route.
Before I get carried away with too positive thoughts, however, I am brought crashing back down to earth at the Tettenhall Wood end of the service.
Route 1 turns around at a mini-roundabout deep inside a housing estate, where the 7 minute NX frequency, with it's clean, green machines are joined by something of a quite different nature - the services of Travel Express, who compete between here and Wolverhampton City Centre, as "Handyrider".
Travel Express compete on route 1

If the business mantra is "competition is good", I decide to find out what the rival offering provides.
Travel Express offers a 15 minute service compared to NX's 7 minute daytime frequency. It only runs as far as the City Centre (as the previous incarnation, the 501 route did, prior to the Wolverhampton Network Review). No hybrid clean green machines on offer here - indeed some are H-registered single deckers that, in their faded cream and red livery aren't too pleasing on the eye.
I observe the scene for a while. NX's hybrid deckers routinely spin the mini-roundabout and begin their run back towards the City and on to Dudley. Travel Express's offerings are also running to time on this Saturday afternoon. It is clear that the majority of non-concessionary pass holders have an NX Travelcard as they ignore the older Travel Express single deckers and go for the big green offering. Those with concessionary passes are more open to Travel Express though, should one of their buses be on the stop.
So it is with slight bemusement to the NX driver and fellow intending passenger that I let the Hybrid vehicle go and await the rival service, which is negotiating the aforementioned mini-roundabout.
Even more bemused seems the driver, who like his colleagues, doesn't wear a uniform, but a green hi-viz instead.
"How much to Town, please?" I enquire. £2 is the response. He even addresses me a "Sir". But that appears to be the only advantage over the National Express offering. £2 is exactly the same fare as the clean, green machines.
So there's no monetary value in using the competition (although maybe a weekly offering is cheaper), and the experience is distinctly below average.
To be fair, the driving skills are good, but the bus itself has seen far better days. I sit at the back, with the engine resembling a farmyard tractor. This is "back to basics" in every sense. The floor needs to see a mop and the windows haven't seen anything wet for a while, either. We depart 2 minutes early.
Passing various intending passengers along Tettenhall Road towards the City, most of them step back. As previously noted, the only taker is an elderly gentleman in a suit, who can choose his operator. We are the only 2 passengers along the whole of the route, and we alight outside the Grand Theatre. Our driver disappears with a strained growl of the tractor engine in search of more custom.
Travel Express has more routes in Wolverhampton, all competing with National Express West Midlands. In the bus station, it is all the more evident, as a large investment in new vehicles in recent times by NX simply shows up the competition even more.
But I muse more on this as I await my 256 homeward.
The smaller operator must make a living out of this. I see several of their vehicles loading in the bus station, but many are elderly. I guess to many users, a bus is a bus is a bus. Especially if you have the freedom to use the first one to come along.
Stagecoach make an interesting comparison with their MagicBus services, serving student accommodation in Manchester. Yes, you can catch "regular" Stagecoach buses along the Wilmslow Road, but the cheaper Magicbuses, with their elderly vehicles are a no-frills alternative that students lap up. I've stood there watching how these services are used and it is fascinating.
But I'm struggling to understand any similarity in Wolverhampton along Tettenhall Road with Travel Express. On route 1 we have the two extremes of bus operation: posh environmentally-friendly buses (with stops announced visually and audibly - by a NX Manager with classic Black Country accent!) compared to just about as no-frills as you can get. And for a single journey it costs exactly the same.
I guess advocates of Quality Contracts will tell me that the "no-frills" operation would disappear under a QC, but whilst competition in the bus industry on the road can be interesting to various degrees (I'm thinking more a battle of "quality"), I ponder the image such "basic" service providers give to the wider public - especially the non-regular users we're all trying to attract.
The free market can bring us better buses - and sometimes not!  

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Necessity to Shock?

Am I the only one to find the "real-time" footage of the Spanish train crash both sickening and, frankly, unnecessary?
It is bad enough seeing images of carriages on their sides but I guess this helps to create the gravity of the story, unpleasant as that may be.
However I am somewhat sickened to see the wide use in the media of the security camera footage that captures the entire episode in all of its horror. What is the need for this?
I accept that media outlets are in some sort of "arms race" to get the best footage of any event, but I struggle to understand what "benefit" we get from this particular footage. If anything, in my view, it looks like something from an action movie, and I regret looking at it, because in my view adds nothing to my understanding of the story.
Out of respect for those who lost their lives in this awful event, I am only sorry that I, like many others, clicked on it.
Were the media too quick to show such horrendous scenes?
My thoughts are with those who lost their lives and their relatives and friends.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Quality Contracts - A Step Closer to London Style?

Some Interesting news comes out of the North East of England, where the seemingly never-ending saga of Quality Contracts for the area has taken a new twist, with Transport Authority Nexus threatening an almighty meltdown if they don’t take control of the buses, London-style.
We’d all like better buses. Our capital City London is often held up as an example of how an effective bus network can operate. All things being equal, we’d like buses to be like London everywhere.
But everything, of course, isn’t equal.
For a start, London’s transport is expensive to provide. There is more money thrown at the London bus network by far than anywhere else in the country. You do indeed “get what you pay for”, but it’s a real political hot potato. Since London had a Mayor, London has seen a transformation in its bus provision. The capital is unique in so many ways, and a discussion on how deregulation might or might not have worked in the City (or indeed whether it has worked or not elsewhere) would be never-ending.
Here’s an example. Why not create “Transport for Birmingham” in the same vein as “Transport for London”?
For a start we don’t have an all-encompassing Mayor in the West Midlands. Instead we have very distinct areas. Would the 7 Districts across the conurbation agree on everything? Even if Birmingham went alone, would we end up with services terminating at the border (as they did many years ago) because “TfB” is just that? i.e. not “Transport for the wider area”?
Would our elected representatives pledge the kind of taxpayers’ money afforded to those in London to create a similar network?
And what of areas where the network thrives and wins awards, such as Nottingham, which has no threat of a Quality Contract? How is that achieved? And, simplistically, if Nottingham can do it, why can’t anywhere?
This isn’t an anti-Quality Contract rant. I’m as curious on the sidelines as any observer to see what might happen should one ever come to fruition. But the latest comments coming out of the North East are, to me, a tad confusing.
Nexus threatens a huge amount of cuts unless it gets its hands on the network. Scrapping the cash behind all 255 of its school bus services, 200 subsidised services facing the axe, 330 jobs to go and various other deep cuts are forecast if things stay the same.
Two issues spring to mind.
One, if Nexus, as an Integrated Transport Authority, are facing such draconian measures in the coming years and feel the need to address them by introducing a Quality Contract, what of the other similar ITA areas? For example, does Centro face similar pressures? There has been no smell of QCs in the West Midlands - only partnership agreements that, on the face of it, will bring large benefits to West Midlands bus users.
Two, is the North East a “failing” area for buses? I’m no expert on the area, but I’ve been for a few days twice in the last five years and it seemed to me to be well served. Passenger Focus reports that customer satisfaction is high, and, to be honest, I’ve seen far worse areas across the UK.
So it begs the question, how political is this motive?
We all want better bus services, and if the good Councillors of the North East feel that a Quality Contract is the way to achieve it, they have the mechanism, in law, to make that happen. We’ll all be watching with interest if it does.
Passengers, of course, won’t be in the slightest bit interested, unless the fares go up (supposedly admitted by Nexus that some might) or reliability is affected. Will the North East get more policed bus lanes if a QC is introduced, for example?
In ten years time, will we look back at the first Quality Contract (should it happen) and say it was a good move that brought more investment and a settled network to the North East? Or will we rue the removal of innovation and witness a bus network at the mercy of funding cuts more directly?
It is also interesting to keep an eye on the rhetoric coming out of the Labour Party HQ as we start to approach the long run in to the next General Election. More of this kind of thing seems to be on the menu of the current opposition. Future transport policy post-election will be very interesting indeed.
I’m sure this discussion, like the one on deregulation itself, will run and run.....

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Celebrating our Transport Heritage

Everyone loves a steam engine. Whenever one is scheduled to pass through Stourbridge Junction, you can guarantee some smiling faces. 
Maybe it's something to do with our heritage - when Britain was a World leader in so many aspects - or maybe it's a real-time reminder of simpler days gone, although I guess many of the people who worked the steam engines were pleased to see the cleaner, simpler to operate diesels appear on the scene! 
I'm no expert on steam engines, but I love to see them. My favourite type of steam engine is Gresley's A4. It's dramatic curved lines make it a beauty to observe, and I can imagine it was quite startling to see one for the first time back in 1935 when the first one made it's debut on the tracks! 

A4 no. 4464 "Bittern"

It was on 3 July 1938 that Mallard hit 126mph on Stoke Bank to claim the World Speed Record for a steam locomotive - a record that remains intact today. That must have been an incredible event! 
So hats off to the National Railway Museum in York for pulling together the remaining 6 preserved A4 locos for "The Great Gathering" to celebrate 75 years since the record attempt. 2 of the remaining 6 (out of a total of 35 built) surviving locos have been brought over from the US and Canada, where they are static museum exhibits. 
The event has proved extremely popular. When I was there, photography was nigh-on hopeless due to the sheer amount of people there, but nonetheless it was great to be amongst such a great line up of our transport heritage. I'm a particular fan of the 1930s era generally, and I never cease to be amazed at the stunning designs of the era, of which the A4s fit in perfectly! Quite incredible to think that the confident, roaring 30s would abruptly come to an end with the advent of war, which of course changed everything. 
Elsewhere in the Museum, there are many examples of the glamour of rail travel, from the silver service displayed on dining trains of days gone to the Royal carriages, where no expense was spared - even as war was raging the Royal Family toured the length and breadth of the country in their special trains, which were also parked in tunnels overnight to provide extra security. 
This I pondered on my journey home via CrossCountry Trains. I'd treated myself to First Class, and whilst indeed it was a bit more luxurious than standard (and had the all-important leg room that I need!) it wasn't in the Royal carriage league! (The free wi-fi worked though, so we have made progress of sorts since the romantic days of 1930s train travel!)
It's always nice to reflect on our transport heritage, if only to compare with today's service and learn lessons from our predecessors, although of course today's operations are often far-removed from those of the past. 

"The Great Gathering" has now ended at the National Railway Museum, but there are further chances to see all 6 A4s together again before 2 of them return overseas next year. Visit for details. 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Free Parking Heaven?

Skimming through the local free paper, I notice the local Conservatives are proposing to "sensationally" (Dudley News' phrase, not mine) scrap car parking fees across the Dudley Borough - should they take control of the Council next year.
My old pal Patrick Harley - who is leader of the Dudley Tories these days - makes a fair point when he says "our town centres are dead".
But is free car parking really the golden goose to pump blood back into our beleaguered towns? Merry Hill is - and has been for years - the major culprit locally in the Black Country.
Free parking might well encourage more activity in our traditional centres, but it will also encourage more congestion and more fumes.
As Cllr Harley points out "we need to do something".
I presume the often discussed topic of introducing car parking charges to Merry Hill is off the discussion table then?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Door to Door: Llandudno to Wordsley - By Bus!

Phil steps outside his seafront hotel in Llandudno, walks around the corner to the bus stop and begins to find his way home to the Black Country - all the way by local bus!

Only the extremely enthusiastic or possibly insane (I fit both categories) would attempt to step outside their seafront hotel in Llandudno and make it home to Wordsley in the Black Country all the way by local bus services.
This isn’t, of course, a normal journey to make, but in many ways the individual parts of the journey are very important – these are the trips that people make each day, and the ones that current non-users must be encouraged to try if bus use is to improve in numbers.
It’s an extremely quiet scene in Gloddaeth Street, Llandudno at 0650 on a Wednesday morning. I’m too early to even enjoy breakfast in my hotel as I wait for my first bus of the trip – the first journey of the day between Llandudno and Rhyl on Arriva’s service 12. Just me and 2 others are milling around the newsagents. I’m considering a Mars bar for breakfast but decide against such a sugary treat that early as I watch an ex-London double decker draw up to the stand.

First bus of the day!

According to the timetable it is 2 minutes late, but the timing point is from the West Shore – about 2 minutes away to my right. So I accept all is in order and purchase an Arriva Wales Day Ticket from the driver who is pleasant enough but probably coming to terms with his early start. He smiles politely and the 3 of us are eastbound out of the “Queen of Welsh Resorts”, through Colwyn Bay, hugging the Welsh coastline towards Rhyl.
It’s a fine morning in North Wales and the double decker provides some lovely views of the sea, interrupted by a mass boarding of schoolchildren, who are using some choice language on the way to their lessons, which slightly concerns me as I’m about to do a live interview on BBC Radio WM’s Breakfast Show regarding investment in buses in the West Midlands! Should I hop off and risk my carefully-planned itinerary, or stay on the top deck and risk thousands of West Midlands radio listeners choking over their cornflakes at the antics of Welsh schoolchildren?
In the end it doesn’t come to it as the radio producer rings me to say the interview has been put back 20 minutes. The kids shuffle off to school and we arrive spot on time into Rhyl bus station.
From here I’m off to Chester on the 11.

Rhyl to Chester - aboard the Cymru Coastliner

The departure stand shows information for services 11, 11A, 11F, 11G, 11M & 11X. All subtle variants of the 11 I guess, but it looks very untidy and off-putting to a first-time user.
The service is one of those anomalies that can’t show their final destination due to the length of it and the associated legalities. The 5 between Caernarfon and Llandudno cannot show “Llandudno” as its destination, rather “Bangor – connect to Llandudno”, or something like. It’s ridiculous and unhelpful for passengers. This one shows “Holywell”, approximately halfway along the route, with “connections to Chester”. It is, of course, the same bus that will do the entire journey.
The driver is in the cab 5 minutes ahead of departure time, but we still manage to leave 4 minutes late as people are buying weekly tickets. The driver is sealing them into little wallets and many notes and change are being handed back and forth.
Convenient? Maybe for the passenger buying the product, but for others like me it all looks incredibly cumbersome. Exact fare policies may be old-fashioned and customer unfriendly, but here’s the other side of the coin: you can board a bus full of people incredibly quickly if you aren’t dealing with change. This way of selling tickets is long, laborious and ultimately very time-consuming. It doesn’t help that the enquiry office in the bus station is now temporarily closed.
4 minutes late, we finally depart. The vehicle is a very well-appointed “Cymru Coastliner” with posh seats, extra legroom and free wi-fi, announced politely by the recorded voice. I complete a grilling from the BBC WM Breakfast Presenter, who seems determined to put a spoke in £81m of bus investment in the West Midlands, whilst my bus negotiates a holiday park.
The driver waits time at a couple of points en route, but still ends up arriving 3 minutes late into Chester. Halfway along the route at Holywell, a passenger had inevitably asked his fellow travellers if he had to change there – the dreaded destination display had struck again!
Chester may be a lovely place to be, but it’s pretty hopeless for interchanging between buses and trains.
The “Cymru Coastliner” had terminated at the “bus exchange” (posh term for bus station), which is nowhere near the railway station, where my next leg of the journey commences. The bus exchange, like so many other bus station facilities in towns and cities across the country, is shoved into an anonymous little corner of town. The signs to the railway station aren't great and I soon find myself in the main shopping street.
I recall from previous visits to Chester that a station link bus operates from a side street near the park & ride buses. I find the street, but with no sign of the station link bus, I decide to follow my instinct and head on foot to the railway station. The signs disappear and I’m faced with several lanes of traffic to negotiate as I spot an Arriva Sapphire bus heading for the station. I follow this down a road and eventually come across the railway station, but it’s taken me 25 minutes to walk –without clear signage – between bus exchange and railway station.
I've missed my intended connection, but the Arriva Sapphire service 1 to Wrexham is every 12 minutes, so it isn't long before I’m up and running again.

Chester-Wrexham: aboard the extremely posh "Sapphire"!

Another extremely well-appointed bus, it loops around Chester to serve the main street (Foregate St) I've just walked down (!) but with no service numbers on the shelters or bus stop flags, I have easily missed this more convenient stop. Maybe the Council and/or Arriva should consider providing this information, a la “Sapphire departs from here to Wrexham” or something similar. Maybe it would attract more users, but I suspect some Councillor might take umbridge at the prospect of enticing shoppers to spend their money elsewhere...
It’s another pleasant romp through the Cheshire countryside aboard a very posh bus, but we still manage to arrive 5 minutes down into Wrexham.
At Wrexham bus station, I’m due to use Arriva’s service 2 across the border into England and Oswestry. I can’t easily find a “where to board your bus” information point, and the computer screen on the enquiry office wall seems long dead. A large screen in the centre of the bus station does show upcoming timetabled departures though and I soon find my stand.
Wrexham has buses of many colours. There are numerous operators here, some seemingly very small operators, bringing in people from small surrounding villages. I peruse some of the frequencies – very small on some routes. Maybe the multi-colours of Wrexham are what the then Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley originally envisaged when he persuaded Prime Minister Thatcher to privatise and deregulate bus services back in the mid 80s.
This is where Arriva Buses Wales meets Arriva Midlands, and route 2 to Oswestry is operated by the Midlands version of aquamarine. Route 2 also has variants (2C, which is a short version of the 2) but I’m going full-length to the English market town.
The bus is a less-posh, more-standard single decker, but it also boasts free wi-fi. I have to register separately for this though, as it seems a different version to the Sapphire wi-fi. It works pretty well, as I flatten my smartphone battery looking at mundane status updates on Facebook and Twitter.
The sun is shining as we meander across into England. The bus pumps out heat from near my feet – another one the engineers have missed...
We arrive into Oswestry bus station more or less on time and I sprint across to an altogether more attractive Optare Versa single decker which is about to leave on service 70 to Shrewsbury. My attempts at a Linford Christie across the bus station were pretty much wasted, however. Our driver from the previous journey merely ambles across in my wake and jumps aboard, hitching a lift back to Oswestry garage, which this service passes.
Our route 70 departs on time and shortly arrives at the garage to drop off our earlier driver. In fact the bus pulls onto the forecourt and reverses into a space at the back end of the garage to allow a driver changeover. Fascinating for an enthusiast like me, but really necessary for the smooth, efficient operation of a bus service? We sit here for a few minutes whilst driver changeover formalities are carried out and another driver proceeds to rip off an advert flapping from the side of the bus. The locals on board seem unbothered. One is comparing pork chops with her friend’s butcher’s purchase.
An hour later and we’re into Shrewsbury. Town of half-timbered buildings, Gothic-like railway station and, well, pretty much underwhelming bus station.
The bus station is functional, if unspectacular. There’s much reversing without banksmen going on here, but all the bus drivers seem to know the drill. The newsagents contains a small enquiry desk, manned by one of those people you’d thought didn’t exist anymore – tonnes of local knowledge, backed up with timetables for local services all over the walls, as well as seemingly acting as a local travel agent for coach tours across Britain and Europe. I grab handfuls of timetables and finally succumb to the choccy bar I resisted at ten to seven this morning and head for Stand P for the Bridgnorth service – handily corrected graffiti-pen style by an astute member of staff no doubt on the information board.

Bus information - felt-tip pen-style in Shrewsbury...

I have 2 choices at Shrewsbury. Head towards Bridgnorth (where Hitler was rumoured to have wanted to make his British base) where I could link towards Stourbridge, or Telford, where the service again transforms itself into a bus to Wolverhampton – although for reasons described earlier doesn’t show itself as a Wolverhampton bus.
But there’s a problem. Neither bus has shown and traffic around the bus station has ground to a halt. A traffic accident just up the road has quickly created a congestion nightmare, with ambulances and police sirens filling the air. An Arriva man in tabard is perusing the scene, and, to his credit is informing not only his own drivers but those of other operators what is going on.
But with nearly an hour passed, and traffic slowly returning to normal, my schedule is in tatters. There is still no sign of either of my options, as I continue to tweet both Arriva and Shropshire Council. Neither can assist me with the location of my missing buses, and with the prospect of ongoing connections being lost, I decide to abandon the bus and let the train take the strain!

London Midland train to the rescue in Shrewsbury!

I handily have my London Midland pass on me so it’s a quick trip down to Wolverhampton from where I can pick up a bus home from there.
A National Express West Midlands 255 service takes me to within half a mile of my home, but not without me emailing Centro en route to report some missing information from the digital screens in Wolverhampton bus station.

End of the road! National Express West Midlands route 255 takes me home from Wolverhampton!

Eleven hours after leaving Llandudno I’m finally home, but what have I learnt from this snapshot of 6 bus journeys (and an unexpected rail one)?
Presentation of the vehicles themselves was very good. Arriva in particular have really upped their game in Wales, with both Sapphire and Cymru Coastliner.
Timekeeping maybe needs a closer eye. Several journeys seemed to run late for no particular reason.
Should more off-bus ticket selling be considered? My experience in Rhyl watching people watching buying weekly tickets from the driver was slow and frustrating. Imagine if it was raining?
Cannot anything be done with longer services unable to simply show their final destination because of “legislation”? It is an unnecessary complication.
There are some good things going on, but still “the little things” need considering in order to encourage non-users to try buses more often.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

More Welsh Ramblings...

Phil is off to his beloved North Wales again, and discovers trains with no legroom, buses with loads and a pony-tailed driver who hates his bus...

North Wales is a particularly favourite spot of mine. So with 4 days off work, I decided to go for a ride on the wonderful Welsh Highland Railway.
But part of the fun is the journey to and from Llandudno, where I decided to base myself for 2 nights. I could have a go on Arriva’s recently-introduced premium “Sapphire” service between Chester & Wrexham, as well as try a route I’d always fancied having a go on – GHA’s X50 link from Wrexham to Rhyl.
Having got myself from Stourbridge Junction to Smethwick Galton Bridge, it wasn’t long before my first delay was apparent. Earlier signalling delays around Wolverhampton had delayed my Arriva Trains Wales journey towards Chester. 8 minutes down wasn’t a particular problem for me though – I had more trouble squeezing my 6’7” frame into the Class 158 train! At least this is one of the recently refurbished ones though. The spruced-up carriage still has appalling legroom...
The train splits at Shrewsbury, meaning that all those heading into the Principality must be in the front 2 carriages – always a slightly nervy moment I think for travellers – how do you know without stepping out onto the platform where the front 2 carriages are? Or I guess you could walk as far as you can until you meet the driver...We arrive 5 minutes late.
From here I’m travelling on Arriva’s sparkling new “Sapphire” bus service to Wrexham. Route 1 leaves from outside the front of the railway station. Out comes the camera to capture the posh bus. Except it isn’t what it should be. It’s a posh bus, but it’s one of the “Cymru Coastliners”, which normally ply their trade between Chester and Rhyl. I decide to let it go, as there is a 12 minute frequency, and, like clockwork, the next 1 appears, and this time it’s a real Sapphire.
Incorrect Bus! 

Correct Bus! 

These are actually reconditioned vehicles, rather than brand new, but they may as well be new, as they've been completely gutted and put back together with luxurious interiors, including even posher leather seats than Leicester’s version of Sapphire, which I saw at last week’s launch in the East Midlands. There is 2+1 seating upstairs, plenty of legroom for big fellas like me, and free wi-fi, which worked mostly fine, give or take a few drop outs.
Posh leather seats on Sapphire...

I purchase a £6.50 Arriva North Wales day ticket (which will also get me from Rhyl to Llandudno later) and we’re soon off into the Cheshire countryside. Welsh and English announcements refer to the wi-fi and tell us where we’re stopping. It is a supremely comfortable ride. You can even charge your power-hungry smartphone up on the powerpoints by the side of your seat. The only thing that’s missing (as is on most other UK double-deckers) is upstairs windscreen wipers. The rain is falling and seeing where we’re going is difficult.
The front seats don’t have the powerpoints though, so I’ll take my chances with my phone battery in order to see such delightful village names as “Cuckoo’s Nest”. I swear the Welsh announcements are being made with a scouse accent...
It takes around 50 minutes to get to Wrexham, and we arrive a few minutes down. It’s raining and most of the population are huddled in McDonalds, emulating the Chancellor, munching on burgers.
I try the travel centre in the bus station, which oddly only has timetables for 2 services to hand. I ask the lady about the X50/X52 service, who tells me that the next departure is the 1325. “Most of them go through to Rhyl”, she advises, and the paper timetable appears to indicate this also.
On stand, the service is for Denbigh, with “connections” to Rhyl, but my branded X50/X52 (not clear which is the Rhyl one) arrives with driver who tells me that he is, in fact, only going to Denbigh. He’s pleasant enough though, informing me I can catch an Arriva bus from Denbigh to Rhyl, “or wait for one of ours – but it’ll be about half an hour later”. The ticket is £5.50.
The departure is a fully-loaded one and I’m forced to sit right at the rear of the single decker. The seats are so high up that all I can see is the passing pavement. It’s a pleasant run though (gazing out of the rear window instead) and myself and 1 remaining passenger are deposited at a roundabout in Denbigh.
The driver points to a stop on the other side of the roundabout and repeats his earlier words about Arriva’s service 51 in around 10 minutes or another 30 minutes for GHA’s – but at least I won’t have to pay again. I won’t have to pay again anyway, as my Arriva Day Ticket will get me onto their bus! And with that, a quick flick of the destination button. “Sorry, Not In Serivce” – and he’s gone!
It’s a quiet day in Denbigh. Council workers are tending to flowers on the traffic island. It’s a quaint scene.
Not so quaint is the bus shelter, which is a disgrace. The glass panels are frankly disgusting and the real-time information (which may or may not be “real-time”) is mostly intelligible due to the combined antics of the local vandals and lack of love from the Council. It does scroll the Traveline number though, and also suggests I text 84268 – without an accompanying code. Maybe my phone would explode with details of every stop departure in the UK if I did...
Denbigh "Real-time" - or lack of!

The appalling bus shelter in Denbigh!

Arriva’s 51 to Rhyl arrives dead on time. No sooner has the pony-tailed driver grunted his approval at my ticket, he’s out of the cab on a mission to resolve the buzzing sound, emanating from the rear emergency exit. A hefty slam ensues, but one stop later the door is rebelling again.
“I hate this bus”, announces the driver to the small gaggle of passengers, who may require a tad more customer service training, should Sapphire ever come to Denbigh.
We eventually reach Rhyl, with no more buzzing. My 12 to Llandudno at least says Llandudno these days on the real-time information (I had complained that it merely read “Clifton Road” last year), but the display is showing some confusing info. There’s a bus due at 1548 (no sign), 2 minutes later at 1550, then nothing until 1624. Perhaps this was actually “real” time, but neither of the first 2 appear, then one shows at 1604 – goodness only knows which of the 3 this one is.
The travel centre has finally given up the ghost here and is permanently closed.
The 12 to Llandudno is a fairly quiet affair. A solitary open topper is on one the trips in the opposite direction – nice if the weather is good, but not many takers today. And how are you supposed to know which departures it’s operating anyway? Rhyl itself has its own open top service, but today isn’t the day for it, unless you fancy getting your hair wet.

Next day, I’m off from Llandudno to Caernarfon to ride the Welsh Highland Railway. To get there, I’m using local buses.
Arriva’s 5 will get me there. Today, I’m using a Red Rover ticket, which covers all other bus operators as well as the aquamarine one, but only on services west of Llandudno (Rhyl is obviously in a different time zone). The trip is a longish but uneventful one. Caernarfon is a lovely town, but its bus waiting facilities aren't great. The shelter has improved since last I was here, but the digital display has died a death. Gwynedd has also stopped producing its timetable booklet too, which isn’t great.

The digital display in Caernarfon - dead as a dodo...

I enjoy my trip on the Welsh Highland Railway to Porthmadog and highly recommend it for lovers of steam, narrow gauge railways and simply stunning scenery!
Arrival at Porthmadog sees the 2 coach loads of Shearings trippers besiege Spooners restaurant, so my plans for something with chips evaporate. I try the local ale and console myself with a packet of crisps.
From here I have decided not to go on the Ffestiniog this time, but to try Express Motors 1 bus service up to Bangor instead. The classic Welsh rain is hammering down and I join the locals huddled in the shelter for the 1, which arrives 10 minutes late. The windows are steamed up and there is slightly too much litter on the floor of the bus for my liking.

Steamy windows! Not a great view of the Welsh countryside!

 The driver is a friendly soul though, and I make my way back up to Bangor for a connection back on Arriva’s 5 to Llandudno where seagulls are my new best friends. Or maybe it’s my fish & chips on the beach they’re more interested in...

Tomorrow, I will attempt to travel doorstep to doorstep from my hotel to home on local buses...