Thursday, 30 December 2010

Worrying Wantage Wanderings (Part I)

Who can you ask?

fbb and Mrs fbb were staying for a few days at "The Bear" Hotel at Wantage (Oxfordshire).
A special offer enabled them to spend some post Christmas time with the family.   An added bonus (possibly not for Mrs fbb!) was that the hotel is adjacent to the main bus stops in the Market Place; so, at breakfast or dinner, fbb has been able to observe the operation of public transport in "The Vale".   [the Vale of the White Horse of Uffington, a notable piece of pre-historic graffiti.]
Now, as we have come to expect, there is nowhere obvious  in Wantage to obtain bus information.   The local council office has closed permanently and the library has little to offer.   So, it's off to the Market Place bus stops to see what is available.   There are two shelters each with shiny new bus top "flags", one of which has a dot matrix information screen on one side and the three services using the stop on the other.

On Monday 27th December the screen showed the words "see timetable" all day.   Great?   Where was the timetable?   On the stop?   Nope - it was a bank holiday and nowhere was there any information on what service was running.   So zero marks out of ten!

On Tuesday  28th December it gave information about the hourly 32 (via Didcot to Abingdon), yet X30s and 31s arrived and departed unannounced!   One helpful 31 (photographed in the earlier "big snow") was painted up for the "S" services from Oxford which run to Witney and Bicester but NOT Wantage - but it did have 31 on the front!   So, perhaps 3 out of ten for a third of the correct information!
But, three belated cheers; on Wednesday 29th December the sign showed details of all three services from that stop.   At last - a grudging 10/10 after two days of (NOT) trying very hard.

Sadly, due to the pedestrian (= slow moving) "refresh rate" of the wizzo electronics, fbb was unable to take a photo of the sign in action.  (Or even in "lack of action" on 27th and 28th!).   
Note the spiky thing on the top!   An aerial?   Presumably with a link to "deep throat" located in a hardened underground citadel somewhere at Oxford  County Council HQ.    But it turns out to be a very shallow "deep throat" computer which doesn't seem to understand that on "non standard" days there will be MORE customers wanting information - so it ought to be complete and right.

But, surely, there are timetables on display at the stop?   No, again!   Just a list of departures - so you don't even know when you might be able to get there, yet alone come back.   At least if you are good at mental arithmetic you can add up a list of travel times between each stop; but, while doing the mental gymnastics, the bus will have pulled away anyway.   AND, you still cannot be sure what service is actually running on Bank Holiday or similar "odd" days.   Not helpful.
Of course you can ring Traveline (or get times on your mobile).   But, and a big "but" it is,  you have to PAY traveline (16p for the first minute, that's over three shillings in real money!).   Crazy - it's like Tesco charging you a fiver admission to use its stores -  paying to find out what they sell and how much it is.
Four suggestions so far.   There WILL be more!

1. Ensure that there is a full set of up-to-date literature available SOMEWHERE in Wantage.
2. Put timetables up at the bus stops, not just summaries.
3. Try to persuade your electronic thingummies not to have bank holidays.   Maybe the electrons were a little tired - or even hung over - after Christmas.
4. Don't make us pay for the privilege of finding out what you sell, namely rides on a bus.   Tesco seem to manage to advertise their wares without a surcharge for information supplied!

But, hang the expense!   fbb DID ring traveline ...
... to be continued

P.S. The hotel was very pleasant indeed.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Worrying Wantage Wanderings (Part II)

... so fbb rang Traveline
After a series of "press this" instructions (Why?   Is it Traveline or not?) the eventual conversation went something like this:-

fbb : could you tell me the frequency of buses between Wantage and Oxford tomorrow (29th December)?
tl : when do you want to travel?
fbb : I just want to know what the timetable is; so I can make plans.
tl : there seems to be an X30 and a 31.
fbb : do you have timetables there?
tl : we've got three timetables here.
fbb : so how often do the buses run?
tl : theres an X30 at 0906 and another one at 0936.
fbb : thank you very much!

So, does it matter that Traveline (costing millions of pounds) doesn't have timetables?  Yes, it does.    At times like Christmas, non-standard services are often operated.

If Stagecoach were operating a SATURDAY service on 29th December, then peak hour buses would be very different from a Monday to Friday schedule (see above).
A diligent search of Stagecoach's web site shows that a Saturday schedule was, indeed, the order of the day on 29th and 30th December.   A useful and important piece of information which Traveline was unable (or unwilling) to provide.
A subsequent enquiry by fbb about frequencies on New Year's Day elicited a slightly more helpful reply - namely that ONLY service 31 would be running at 56 minutes past each hour from Wantage.   But was that information good enough?
In fact a very limited SUNDAY service was operated throughout Stacecoach Oxford's empire - mostly finishing about 1800.   Not much help if you want to visit a chum for the evening; but VERY frustrating if you set out on the basis of Traveline's advice and then find yourself stranded and in need of an (expensive) taxi back home.

fbb (like a small dog worrying a captured rat?) then turns to the Traveline web site and this is what is available:-
It tells fbb that service 31 does run on 1st January and it appears that he can press a button to get the timetable for "New Year's Day" - except the button does absolutely nothing!    Of course, the enquirer would need to KNOW that service 31 runs between Wantage and Oxford before searching.

And finally!   Traveline call centre advises that (on 29th Dec) X30 buses leave Wantage at 06 and 36 minutes past each hour and (on 1st Jan) the 31 leaves at 56 minutes past each hour.   But the printed timetables show 05, 35 and 55 respectively.   What's going on?

The most worrying thing about Traveline's data and delivery system is that it gives WRONG TIMES.   OK, in this case only a minute different but it can be much more.   The reason is a bit technical but, suffice it to say, it is a very common fault.

To summarise:-
1. Traveline doesn't have timetables only journey plans (or, if they have them, they don't use them.)
2. Their system gives out the wrong times anyway.

What is DESPERATELY needed is a repository for ALL bus timetables in Great Britain - with clearly indexed schedules for "odd" day's operation.   An on line Great Britain Bus Timetable, remember that?

So who CAN you ask?

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A Final Christmas Thought

Mini Blog
fbb's oldest little boy (pictured above, no, really! that's the one who's 35 and does clever things with confusers at Oxford University) was helping with a Charity project in Birmingham on Boxing Day and on 27th.   Innocently he decided to travel from home in Wantage to our delightful second City by train!
A quick surf to the national rail website for trains after 0730 on 26th December revealed a half hour frequency by Cross Country Trains (Donner und Blitzen, das ist Deutsche Bundesbahn!) with a convenient first departure at 0800.
Plans were made - the boy's wife would kiss'n'ride from Wantage to Oxford and all would be hunky dory.   Details were duly reported to the guy in charge of the project who, somewhat hesitantly, expressed something of a passing concern.
"I don't think there are any trains on Boxing Day."
Was the journey planner wrong?   No!  It, being a brainless computer, [did you know that computers have a core capability of adding 1 to 0? - pretty thick, then!] answered the question correctly.
The first train from Oxford to Birmingham after 0730 on 26th December was, indeed, at 0800 ON 27TH DECEMBER!    fbb's boy had not read the page IN FULL and thus had not spotted the date.
Two thoughts.
1. Mayhap the website OUGHT to have said "no Trains on Christmas Day or Boxing Day" for the benefit of the innocent and for senior managers at British universities.
2. Mayhap our Railway Companies ought to be running at least a "basic" Boxing Day service - in response to the massive oodles of so-called Government money lavished on them.   It's not "Government" money, by the way, it's MY money and yours which we all kindly agree to donate to  the HMG charity via our taxes.   It would be nice to be able to use the trains we pay for.
Hauptbahnhof Oxford but NOT with a Cross Country [DB] train.
P.S.  He went by car!

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Joe's Jubilant Journey (Part I)


December 2011 was bitterly cold; snow had fallen, snow on snow; the earth was hard as iron; water was like a stone - but at least the main roads had been gritted.   Joe Saer, with his finacee Maerwin, accepted a lift in a neighbour's 4x4 from their humble cottage in the bleak midwinter of North Wales to complete what could well be the most challenging journey of their lives!  

The first stage was short but simple; to travel the three miles to Penygroes to begin their first public transport journey of what would be a long and tiring day.   From this little town they caught the Express Motors service 1A at 0716 ...

... which would take them north through Caernarfon and on to an interchange at Bangor Station.

Here, after a chilly 30 minutes wait, they joined the inappropriately named Virgin Trains service to Crewe which left bang on time at 0822.   Maerwin was, as they say, "with child" and, as they say as well, "due any day now"!

Crewe Station was busy, even though it was the "festive" season and they barely had time to join their next train, the 1008 departure, which would take them long four hours before they arrived at Swansea.    The route took them through picturesque Herefordshire, and via Newport and Cardiff; but Maerwin was not in the right mood to enjoy the view, anxious, quite rightly about the baby-to-come.

The rather grand and recently upgraded station at Abertawe (Swansea) was reached a few minutes later than the advertised 1355 but a slightly panicky dash across the High Street got them to the bus stop just in time to catch the First Bus X13 due at 1411.

This would deposit them at Ammanford's sumptuously appointed bus station (?) at 1507 ...

...with another almost too-tight connection for the 103 (also First Bus) to Llandeilo.    They now had just two more bus rides until they reached their ultimate destination - to sleep in heavenly peace (!) and await the arrival.   After all, it was December 24th!

... to be continued ... Part II below ...

Joe's Jubilant Journey (Part II)

The end ... and the revelation!

Joe Saer and his (very) pregnant fiancee had travelled (thus far) from their home near Penygroes (North Wales) as far as Ammanford.   A cold coming they had of it in Dercember 2011; but now they had only two bus journeys to endure in order to complete their tortuous trip.

At 1515, the 103 would take them to the delightful town of Llandeilo, nestling in the Dyffryn Tywi ...

... where they arrived at 1540 with a healthy 17 minutes to wait for their very last piece of public transport on a very, very long day.   Tired and desperate for a warm fire (and Maerwin for a comfortable bed!) they clambered aboard Morris Travel's once a week service 283 - bound for Llangadog at 1557.

Morris Motors timetable shows this last leg as the critical Saturdays only trip -and the travel weary couple had made it!

There ware no rooms left at the pub in the village, so they had booked into a self-catering converted barn - an old Welsh cattle shed.   It was just after a quarter past four and their journey was over.

Here, at last, they settled down for the night.  

The baby came in the early hours - two shepherds, on duty to protect their flocks against the cold, popped in with a hot drink.  A little later Doctor Mel King arrived (accompanied by his two slightly inebriated brothers) from a Christmas Eve party.   The three Kings, excited at being part of the first Christmas baby in the village in living memory, brought a selection of somewhat inappropriate gifts; some golden chocolate coins from their tree, a bottle of pungent perfume and some soothing ointment for Maerwin.   Doctor Mel gave Maerwin and baby, to be named Joshua, the once-over and pronounced them A-OK and very special indeed.   

The baby slept peacefully - no crying he made! - in an antique cot made out of an old feeding trough.   Meanwhile, the little town lay still; as the silent stars went by.   What a night!   And now it was Christmas Day!

As Maerwin said at the time, "no-one could possibly have ever been through such a journey and such a birth ever before..."!

"Well, you wouldn't believe it if they had, would you?"


Glossary:   'Saer' is welsh for carpenter; 'Maerwin' is Mary; 'Joseph' is Joseph; the Greek version of 'Joshua' is ... Jesus!

They started their journey at Nazareth (Welsh has no "z" so it is more correctly spelled with an "s") near Penygroes and finally arrived at Bethlehem near Llandeilo.  

For many years, the Post Office at Bethlehem has provided hand-stamp facilities for first day covers bearing the Christmas stamps.   The current post office opens only one day a week in the village hall - but works every day at Christmas to stamp special mail.

The one-day travel schedule was workable on Saturdays in 2010 as per fbb's diagram.   fbb has assumed services still operate to the same schedule in the futuristic 2011 report when Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday! 

Of course, THIS narrative is purely a fictional nicety - the 2000 year older original changed the history of the world and offered to change the course of lives, then and now!


Friday, 24 December 2010

Joe's Jubilant Journey (The Schedule)

Read Parts I and II first!

For the timetabular tyro! [mini-blog]

0645   Nasareth : lift in 4x4
0705   Penygroes

0716    Penygroes : Expsess Motors 1A
0752    Bangor Station

0822    Bangor Station : Virgin Trains
0954    Crewe

1008    Crewe : Arriva Trains
1355     Swansea Station

1411     Swansea Station : First Cymru X13
1507    Ammanford

1515    Ammanford : First Cymru  103
1540    Llandeilo 

1557    Llandeilo : Morris Travel 283
1616    Bethlehem

For a detailed narrative, see Joe's Jubilant Journey Parts I and II

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Ghost of Airport Past!

Or ... keep up to date folks; mini-blog.

Sheffield City Airport closed to commercial flights in 2002 and finally bit the dust in 2008.   The terminal building is now a suite of offices and the runway is returning to grass.   But (see earlier blog) Plusbus thinks it still exists, and so does First Bus on their latest (November 2010) route map...
And, so does Stagecoach on its November 2010 route map ...
More worryingly, so does Flybe and/or Google!

Maybe someone should try to book for £21.99!   I wonder where the flight might take you - perhaps Never-never Land!

It's good to see that two of our major transport groups are so up-to-date and "with it".   It inspires confidence!

Friday, 17 December 2010

What is a Circle?

Or, more significantly, what is a "circular" bus?
Now THAT would be a spherical bus!   If fact the "Outspan" Orange car was built on a mini chassis and was limited to 30mph - above which speed it would, literally, roll over.   Constructed in 1972, this juicy vehicle now resides at the Beaulieu Motor Museum; except when, as here, it is squeezed into use at a rally - where it might pip other vehicles at the post!  [Zesty groan!].

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a circle as:- "a perfectly plane figure whose circumference is everywhere equidistant from its centre, or, loosely, a closed loop."

Truly circular bus services (even if the circle is less than perfect) are rare beasts indeed.   Buses on both the inner and outer circle routes in Birmingham keep on circling and, in the past, the oft-quoted Sheffield had its inner and outer circles (the 8,9 and 2,3 respectively) - alas lost and gone for ever.   Another historical circle was the Island Explorer route of Southern Vectis - start from anywhere on the route, break your journey a couple of times, and keep going till you get back after four hours of bus travel later.
[The present replacement for the inner circle in Sheffield, by the way, (10, 10A) might appear to circle from the route description, but when the bus reaches Manor Park, it turns round and goes back the other way.]

The 11C ("C" for clockwise) in Birmingham.

Perhaps it would be acceptable to class a bus route as "circular" if it starts from A, visits B, C and D in a sort of loop and returns to A - even if it does not normally keep going.   At least potential customers would be warned that it may not be the most direct way from A to C!

So what, pray, is a bus route labelled "Circle"?

Derby had "Browning Circle" as a destination.

but, sadly, that "circle" is a sort of roundabout on a Derby Estate.

But what would you make of some of these Sheffield "Circles"?
Although the route descriptions doesn't say so, this route is almost a real "Circular" which returns from Handsworth to Sheffield. It is actually a "lollipop" shape, but the "stick" of the lollipop is on roads where the bus runs non-stop, so, "Circular" it is, just about!
The 47 is also a lollipop with a big blob at one end.   But most of its route is the same out and back - so it hardly counts as a circular.

The 73, on the other hand, only has a little blob at the Ecclesfield end of the lollyand is most definitely NOT a circular by any normal (non South Yorkshire) definition.
Now, the 45 is a mystery. Looking very hard at the route, there is no sign of a circle, a blob or a loop. Maybe a figment of SYT's fervid imagination. But the dream will end early in 2011 (possibly?) when the 45 is withdrawn after a very short life!

Of course there is another, more serious, problem with the 45 as listed in the January changes leaflet (above).  It doesn't go to Firth Park!   Whoops!   Anyway, back to the circles.

Now perhaps here we have another definition of circle (SYT-style). The 32 runs from Sheffield to Rotherham but via a very roundabout route; travelling round two sides of the right angled triangle rather than along the hypotenuse.   Or do they mean "circuitous"?   Now there's a thought.   OR, maybe the use of "circle" is simply mean to imply some sort of loop at one or both ends.   In that case most routes that terminate in Sheffield, should be designated "circle" as they are virtually forced by the road system to perform some sort of gyratory journey.

So, what is a circle?   However you understand the word - PLEASE don't ask South Yorkshire Travel. They do not understand the concept!

P.S. Even the Circle Line on London's Underground no longer circles! 

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Oxford Oddity the sequel!

Nothing has happened!

Back in March, when fbb started this blog lark, he reported on the announcement that "it had been agreed" that Stagecoach and Citybus would be "co-operating" in Oxford. The implication was that from August 2010 the cutthroat wall-to-wall buses breathing their noxious fumes amongst the gleaming spires of academe would be replaced with shiny new double deck "greener" buses sharing the trade in equal proportions.

And greener buses have appeared; Stagecoach "hybrid" buses painted shades of green.

But what of timetable co-operation?   A quick look at the websites of each "partner" reveals little or no evidence of the "all pals together" project.   For example, Go Ahead [City Bus] runs service 2 and variants every few minutes between the City and Kidlington ...

... and Stageocach runs service 7 and variants on almost identical routes.

Maps reveal how identical they are; firstly, City Bus ...

... and then, Stagecoach!

Not a lot to choose between the two.

The question is, "Do the residents of Kidlington need a bus every 2.5 minutes?"   According to two Oxford bus users (both friends of fbb), the road is hopelessly over-bussed!   Unless passengers are regular "commuters",  the general policy is to get on the first bus that comes, whichever operator it is.

Oxford bus-gestion!

So working together and reducing congestion, emissions and general "yuk" seems a really sensible idea.   So why hasn't it happened?   Answers on a postcard, please to ...

Monday, 13 December 2010

Lesley's Big Adventure

Or ... Public Transport DOES work - sometimes!

Lesley wanted to visit a pal in Church Crookham; and stay for a few days.    Crookham is blessed with an "adequate" local bus service but the lovely Lesley wanted to start from Portsmouth!   This would involve a trek from the far south of Hampshire to the far North.   The usual advice would be, "I wouldn't start from there."  For once the often unreliable traveline and the often out-of-date xephos both agreed on the basic strategy.

So here goes...

1015 from Porstmouth Harbour to Waterlooville (arriving 1046) by First's motorway express route X42.  A brief respite in Waterlooville precinct,

20 minutes to buy a few things in Waitrose then off on Stagecoach service 37 which has arrived from Havant and will trundle off at 1107 to Liss; where, like Cinderella's pumpkin, it turns into a 38 and continues to Alton. Here the timetables provide for a generous one hour and fourteen minutes to explore, to shiver, to enjoy lunch or, perhaps just be bored.

Then it gets a bit exciting.   The next bus (Stagecoach 201 from Alton High Street at 1356) only runs when Alton College is open, although it is not specifically a college journey.   Presumably the link with the College provides enough revenue to make this group of very rural services marginally viable.

Now it gets a bit tricky.   Lesley seemed unclear about the location of her chum's "pad" with reference to bus stops, and Stageocach's time point (Crookham Crossroads) was not at all clear from a street map.   fbb had to resort to Traveline - where, with a degree in thermonuclear physics, it is just possible to find a list of every stop served by the 201.

Further telephonic consultation with Lesley revealed that her friend lived near "the Wyvern" pub - and one of the listed stops was Crookham Wyvern.   So the schedule ends there at approx 1442.

So fbb provides a neatly typewritten schedule for Lesley and then waits on tenterhooks to discover whether the schedule worked; or whether Lesley has disappeared into a Hampshire version of the Bermuda Triangle!

Amazingly both the outward journey and the similar return went without a hitch and, as Lesley is "of mature years" it was all done on her Senior Citizen free pass, so cost her not a bean.   So, much to every one's surprise (especially fbb's), it all worked beautifully - BUT, would the lovely Lesley have been able to do-it-herself?

No way, Jose!  (pronounced "hosay" by the way, so they say!)    Why is public transport so incredibly complicated - and wouldn't it be nice to go back to the good old days of the all-knowing "man in a hut" who actually knows all the answers?   Much, much more reliable than the impersonal world of electronic information!