Thursday 24 June 2010

Cheap but not Cheerful

I have never been happy with "silly" cheap fares which seem very unfair.

Last year I travelled from Glasgow to London for £12.30 in a reserved seat whilst passengers from Preston sat on the vestibule floor having paid full single fare.   Most definitely very unfair.   So I rarely buy them - not because I am wealthy enough to ignore the offers but because I value the flexibility which silly fares remove.

But when the day's schedule allows, I succumb - as I did for a trip from Victoria to Portsmouth on Saturday 19th June for a mere £2.80.   But all did not go according to plan...   Whether it was a software failure (web coding sometimes doesn't take kindly to using the "back" button to make corrections) or just a sorry senior moment (!) I realised too late that I had booked for the wrong time - 1202 instead of 1402.   Immediately I sent off an e-mail to "Southern" but the wrong tickets duly arrived the next day, namely 12th May.  On 13th May a "holding" e-mail arrived promising a reply within 5 working days.

Well over a week later I was offered that opportunity of changing the ticket on-line for £2 or at a staffed Southern station for £10.  Neither was a realistic option.   So a second e-mail was despatched in which I said I would travel at the "wrong" time unless I received further instructions.   The e-mail also included my phone number!  No reply for nearly two weeks!   Then a reply apologising for the possibility that a reply had already been sent (which it hadn't) and promising a reply within 5 working days.  The final reply arrived on the day of travel, a further two weeks later - far too late to do anything - telling me I would have to pay again.

A careful perusal of the documents (illustrated) shows what a confusing nonsense the whole thing is.  
The mandatory reservation coupon (above) does not provide reservations!!; it is only "valid with ticket 30321", presumably not valid with the other two tickets bought for my travelling companions (!) and, of course, nothing explains what happens if my connecting train arrived late in London and I cannot even catch the "booked train only" through no fault of mine.

What is particularly galling is that NONE of these e-mails came from "Southern"; they all emanated from "journeycall" - whoever they are.

There must be a better way.   How about NOT selling "silly fares" and giving sensible off-peak reductions to all customers at slack weekend times.   

What happened on the train?   As expected, the ticket collector happily clipped the tickets without even asking which train they were for.   Sensible fellow - no doubt he has discovered the hard way that the system is unreliable and discretion is the better part of valour!

Thursday 17 June 2010

All Steamed Up at Whitby!

Poor information? - never looked : state of bus station? - didn't care : poor customer service? - never noticed.   So what gets fat bus bloke all hot and bothered?

A recent visit to Whitby introduced your intrepid investigator to the famous Whitby Steam Bus. Giving short tours round the town for a modest fee (considering it needs 3 staff; driver, fireman and conductor /commentator) is a real, no - a surreal experience.  

This claims to be the only road passenger carrying steam vehicle IN THE WORLD.   The vehicle, named Elizabeth, began life as a steam lorry in London and it found its way into the hands of "Vern" ...
... who, together with Mrs Vern and Vern junior, built a 30 seat bus body on it and now run a steam bus tours business.
The 15 min tour shows the power of the bus - which Mrs Vern claims will do 50 mph. It certainly climbed up to the Captain Cook Monument faster than most modern vehicles could manage.   The highlight was a demonstration by Vern - safely in his cab - that this was a REAL steam engine - as he showed the passengers sheets of flame from the boiler.
Go to Whitby, by bus from Middlesbrough and Guisborough, by bus from Scarborough, by bus from Leeds and York, by train from Middlesbrough or by North York Moors Railway from Pickering and...

Ride the fiery female that is Vern's Elizabeth.

P.S. the bus also carries a fourth member of staff - Vern's dog who, on our trip, slept in bored tranquility as the engine clanked and hissed around him - or her.

P.P.S.  Much more about Elizabeth etc. on-line via "whitbysteambus" in search engines!

Wednesday 16 June 2010

York : ID : ten : TIC

On arriving by train at York Station a visitor might well be impressed with a computer monitor display at the main exit from the station.   It looks both helpful and "with it" with a clear heading "buses leaving from outside this station" accompanied by the coat of arms of York City Council.   The display below is a reconstruction of that observed by fat bus bloke on Wednesday 16th June from 1030 onwards.

It purports to show departures for the next 30 to 40 minutes, approximately.   Initially a visitor might be slightly bewildered by the service 412 to "York" due at 1055.   After all, our confused visitor has just arrived at York on a train!   Maybe, he thinks, this bus might take him into the centre of the City - and he would be right!   But so would many other buses from "outside this station"

Maybe our visitor might want to get to the University and has been told to catch service 4 from "outside this station", so he patiently waits for the time of the next service 4 to appear on the screen.   And waits.   And waits.   Has service 4 been withdrawn?   Are the bus drivers on strike?   Have all the service 4 buses fallen into a hole in the road?  Has his informant deliberately misled him as part of some hilarious practical joke?

No!   Service 4 never appears on the board, despite the fact that it is the high-tech "ftr" service with sexy purple articulated buses (with "customer care officers" i.e. conductors!) - and fitted with the latest GPS driven "next stop" announcements.
If our inncoent traveller were to step outside the station he would, very soon, spot his service 4, together with services 1, 2, 3, 12, 42, 142, 143, 744, 746, 747, 840, 843, 844, 845, X40, X43, X46, X52, X53, X54, X64 and some I've missed, and even more that leave from Station Avenue a minute's walk away.  None of these appear on the board!

What the board SHOULD say is that it shows a very small and arbitrary selection of services travelling north from the stops "outside this station" - presumably those very few services which are set up to drive this particular electronic system.  Another different display at a stand outside the station shows details of services 3 and 4; but, when the sun shines, you can't read what is on the screen.   Never mind, it does give a five day weather forecast in case you have to wait that long for your bus.

On the opposite side of the road a third display screen (different again - small and dot matrix) shows the 3 and 4 travelling southbound.  Times appear and buses arrive and depart but the two sets of events (electronic and reality) bear no relationship to each other.   Mysteriously when fat bus bloke was there, this particular screen also advertised a 1005 service 37 to Tadcaster (see P.S. below) but between 1000 and 1040 no such beast appeared!   It probably does not exist but there is no way of checking as York City does not publish any timetable information and neither does the infamous Traveline in the York area!

Finally, to add to this impressive and co-ordinated technology (?) to inform people of an arbitrary (and, frankly, totally useless) selection of information, You can go back INTO the station and find that times of BUSES to Whitby (Coastliner service 840) are shown on the dot matrix station departure screens.  

York Information : ID : ten : TIC?
York Information : ID : 10 : TIC?
York Information : IDIOTIC!

P.S. : Subsequent to publishing the main part of this blog, fbb has discovered service 37.  The serendipitous revelation came when searching the word wide web for the activities of the York Pullman bus company (incidentally with the smartest and shiniest vehicles ever seen!).   The 37 WAS the 87 and it runs the "back way" to Tadcaster.   The first departure from York Station is 1205 - so the 1005 referred to above does NOT exist - as predicted.


Sunday 13 June 2010

Escape from Alcatraz

Well, actually not from Alcatraz; but from the Isle of Wight.

An unfortunate combination of events meant that fat bus bloke was scheduled to leave the Isle of Wight on the same day as 60,000 pop festival attendees (14th June). So the solution was to book with Greyhound UK, as this, hopefully, would guarantee a seat and the company offered a good all-in deal via Island bus, hovercraft and coach - namely from £8 single IoW to London.
No problem booking on-line - no very cheap seats, £24 was all that was on offer - but it was festival go-home day.   The downloaded ticket stated 0715 from Ryde Hover terminal with an arrival in Victoria of 1000.   Slower than the train; but at least there would be a booked seat.   But did I have a booked seat on the Hovercraft; it wasn't clear from the voucher or Greyhound's site?

So Mrs fbb popped into Hovertravel on the previous Monday (7th June).   No, you don't have an automatic booking but just turn up for the 0715, there will be no problem.    An email to Greyhound generated an inconclusive reply, so a somewhat suspicious fat bus bloke enquired again on the previous Friday (12th June) - when the 0715 was found to be FULLY BOOKED.

Had they turned up as per the ticket they would have missed the Hovercraft, missed the coach and missed our onward train in London.    fbb did book on an extra 0700 departure from Ryde.  This blog was typed on Sunday 13th, so avid readers may like to return in about a week so check for a P.S. and whether we did actually escape as advertised!

So, apparently intergrated travel and ticket collapse yet again!   And we wonder why public transport gets a bad press.

P.S. [posted Tuesday 15th June] Escape from Alcatraz successfully achieved at 0700.   Greyhound ride very comfortable; arrival in London only 3 mins later than scheduled despite heavy traffic at Hindhead.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Timetable Travesty

Barry Doe, a nationally renowned timetable and fares guru, issued the first warnings - which I failed to heed.   He hinted (rather strongly) that the process used for creating and printing the railway timetable had been "improved" with new software but, guess what, there were a few teething troubles.   What a surprise!

Firstly the timetable consists of over 4000 on-line pages, largely because the improved software is incapable of saying things like "and then every hour until..." which means that, for example, Table 52 for Bedford to Brighton services is a mere 166 pages long.   So, because a book with 4000 pages is unwieldy to produce we now have two on-line pages to every paper page with print that is, at best, uncomfortable to read and, at worst, often totally illegible.

Then the new improved software cannot tell me where the trains actually go.   So, where a train's times appear on several tables there are no notes to guide the user to the "other bits" of the journey.   The good old timetable used to have headings which said "though  train to...." and these helpful cross-references have all vanished.   Great!    This means, for example, that it is impossible to follow the timings for the route of Grand Central's new West Riding service - it just disappears off the face of the planet only to reappear on another table.

All this joy was heralded by Barry Doe but what he didn't tell us (because he was working from "on-line" pages) was the huge number of hyper-blunders in the retail printed edition.

A selelction for your delight:-

The hourly trains from London St Pancras  to Corby are missing.

The whole service from Cardiff to Coryton does not exist.

On Saturdays there would appear to be no trains between Brighton and London - they all terminate at Croydon.

There are many more.

This book has been published by TSO [in pre-commercial days it used to be called "The Stationery Office"] .   It is published "with the permission of Network Rail and obtained under licence from the Association of Train Operating Companies".   So thanks a bunch the whole incompetent lot of you.   You have just charged me £16 for a timetable that I can barely read, that doesn't tell me half of what I need to know and misrepresents - even simply misses out - large chunks of the information I thought I had paid for.

As Craig Revel-Horwood would say on 'Strictly Come Dancing', - "Your performance, darling, is a disa-a-a-aster!" 

P.S.  Could I suggest a return to a bevy of blokes (or bloke-esses, of course) with quill pens, supervised by an editior who knows where the trains run and can spot the blunders before publication?   I am available for the editor's job!

Thursday 3 June 2010

Boris's Bendibus Blunder

So Boris doesn't like Bendibuses and they are all to be withdrawn from the streets of London. In Britain we don't seem to be able to get used to these excellent movers of mass people; whereas in Europe they are commonplace. Boris says they are dangerous... but are they?

On 3rd September 1979, and under special dispensation from the Ministry of Transport, five bendibuses started work on the free "City Clipper" service in Sheffield. They were immediately a huge success with the favourite ride being on the turntable section where the vehicle was articulated. Not the best place for a passenger subject to the rigours of travel sickness! Fat bus bloke was one of many who rushed for that spot to enjoy the twists, turns and undulations of the bendi-ride!

Because these vehicles had a steering rear axle, they were actually more manoeuverable than the ordinary City buses - effectively they had a shorter wheelbase and much better turning circle.

Sadly Sheffield's "bendis" eventually fell out of favour and fat bus bloke photographed the rotting remains of one round the back of Winchester bus station in the mid 80s.

Even the much publicised "ftr" routes in York, Leeds and Swansea are not proving the riotous success that was originally suggested.   In York the evening and Sunday service is now provided by "ordinary" buses because the costs for bendis are "too high"!

So, perhaps the best place for such superb vehicles is on very busy high frequency urban services where large numbers can be conveyed in a very cost-effective manner.

Sounds ideal for Central London, Boris!