Thursday 30 September 2010

Vex 'Em at Hexham

Hexham is a fine historic town, clustered round its imposing abbey but spoilt, it seems, by the carbuncle of the modern hospital just down the road. Indeed, approaching Hexham from the A69 the vista is dominated by a factory belching smoke and the lurid modern hospital building with the picturesque Abbey somewhat lost in the background. A pity!
Public Transport is largely in the hands of Go-Ahead who took over the area from Arriva some months ago. Once upon a time Northumbria produced an excellent and comprehensive timetable book but now even the county's website carries only links to the major operators' sites. And Traveline, as usual, only delivers little bits of timetable.

So, fbb hies expectantly to the bus station located quite close to the market and on a road delightfully named Priestpopple!

The lights are on but there is no human face from which to derive useful information. Timetables for GoAhead services are displayed in a window, there are departure lists on each stop and, joy of joys, there was a "carousel" of leaflets parked outside a locked door. Joy deflates to vexation when it appears that the leaflets are only for GoAhead services and, guess what, those for the most important and frequent service 10 (branded "Ten", there's original!) are unavailable.   And, of course, ne'er a word about the important link from Newcastle via Hexham to Carlisle (the 685) because that's operated by Arriva and Stagecoach and we wouldn't have any truck with them, would we?
Undaunted our brave and intrepid investigator sets off for the Tourist Information Centre.   Carefully following the direction signs, fbb does a complete circle and gets back to the start point without finding the elusive seller of souvenir trinkets and occasional purveyor of, hmmm, tourist information.   Eventually, after advice from a very, very nice man with a Go-Ahead tie, the TIC is revealed.   And outside is a bus!
Inside the office there is a rack with two leaflets unavailable at the bus station, neither of which mentions the AD122 service parked outside. What is going on?

It transpires that the Hardrian's Wall bus [AD122, the service number being the date when hardy Hadrian built his wall to keep the Scots out - no jokes, please, Mrs fbb is scottish!] doesn't leave from the bus station; neither does it pop off from Priestpopple; it only calls at the carefully hidden TIC! And the carefully hidden TIC didn't display any leaflets for its "own" bus, whilst the lady behind the counter was busy advising (at length) an enquirer that he should go to Hadrians wall by car! Fortunately, as the bus was "in", info was available from a well stocked rack on the vehicle. Good, but not that good if you happen to arrive when the bus doesn't!
Nearly there - nearly equipped with a usable set of Hexham public transport timetables - just the odd "independent" operators' times to obtain.   But, apart from the departure lists at the bus station, there was nothing to be found.   So fbb might have risked a trip to Kielder [forest and reservoir], but couldn't have planned return times.  As the bus only runs on certain days such an outing would be highly risky.
One "lowlight" at the bus station; an official Northumbria notice on one stop tells me that service 888 MIGHT (sic!) operate in Summer 2010.   As it was, by then, nearly the end of September 2010, this information was not entirely helpful!
It's a good thing fbb travelled to Hexham by car!
... and a pleasing print of picturesque Priestpopple in a placid pre PSV period.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Sheffield Sojourn - Episode 5

So what's wrong with spiders, eh? [blog pubished early for "operational reasons".]

A deep sigh, a sinking of the heart and a gritting of teeth for the horrors to come.   South Yorkshire Travel has got some "spider" maps!  The spread of this craze is down to the efforts of Transport for London to explain a hugely complicated bus network in a simple manner.  But, sadly, it can't be done.   You can't air-brush out complexity by drawing a simple diagram because someone will be misled.   SYT claims it's "maps" are in "London Underground" style.

When Harry Beck invented the iconic (and world renowned) Underground map, he realised that geographical accuracy was less important if you were travelling in the bowels of the earth.  Also, when most lines had very frequent services, interchanges were more important than accurate directions and distances.   His map has always produced a few "sillies" [you can SEE Bayswater station from Queensway, no need to change at Notting Hill Gate] but overall it does its job well.

With buses, it's not so easy.   With varied frequencies (some as low as every 30 minutes) and widely differing journey times at peak and off-peak times, only the brave would trust a spider map for making anything other than simple short trips - even in London.   And London's maps are usually fairly "accurate"!

But - oh dear....

Compare an extract of SYTs Rotherham "spider" with what actually happens on the ground:-

fbb's version is on the right.

Points to note:-

1. all three services stop at Conisbrough Doncaster Road, Warmsworth and Balby and NOT as shown by SYT.

2. the main bus service to Conanby is the X78 : the 220 and 221 are supplementary and penetrate further into Conanby's housing estate (Chambers Avenue).

3. The SYT "map" implies a non-stop run from Thrybergh to Conanby - poor Hooton Roberts, wiped off the face of the earth.

And then there's Maltby:-

fbb's version is the lower one.

Points to note:

1. For most of their route services 1 and 2 are identical - they run round the "loop" at Maltby in opposite directions, both calling at Braithwell Road and High Street - better known locally as The Queens Hotel. SYT thinks they follow different routes!

2. The service 10 (straightforward according to SYT) also does a "one way" loop at Maltby, calling first at Tickhill Road (traditional terminus name "Quilter Road") and returning to The Queens by way of Muglet Lane (Duke Avenue).

You could go on (and on and on and on.....

and on!)

Please, SYT, bus operators, local councils et al; beware of the dreaded "spider".   Spray it with something noxious, stamp it beneath the foot, expunge it from existence.   And if you do some sort of opinion survey ["do you like our lovely spider maps or would you prefer to guess where the bus goes?"] in favour of the beast - the DO try very hard, no really, really hard to GET IT RIGHT.   Maybe go for a ride on the buses and see where they go?   Now that WOULD be fun!

And if you are fed up with maps, here is a nice 60s shot of a Rotherham Corporation AEC Bridgemaster on the predecessor of the X78; simmering gently in Pond Street Bus Station, and about to leave for Doncaster via Conanby. Hey-ho! Those were the days!   By the by, the bus station has been rebuilt and the block in the background (Rail House) has been demolished and is now a multi-storey car park.   Only the Sheffield College (now Hallam University) block on the right remains. 

Friday 17 September 2010

Sheffield Sojourn - Episode 4

The Unpleasantness at Rotherham
Rotherham Interchange is one of the excellent facilities provided by South Yorkshire Travel; with plenty of leaflets, a real person to ask, alphabetical departure boards, undercover waiting, and even an adjacent cafe - impressive. The (supposedly simple) task was to catch the No 33 bus to Crystal Peaks (a place of joy and beauty, see below??) ...  

... and by a flooky chance, on a particularly sunny Wednesday, we were standing at the correct departure bay, B4. When was the next bus?   We had missed the 0930 and were at the stand at 0950.  "Where's tha goin'?" enquired a helpful fellow passenger. "Crystal Peaks" was our confident reply. "Every our on't'our."  

But, we riposted hesitantly, the list there says 1030. "I ought t'know," he said, somewhat aggressively, "I travel on it ev'ry day!"  We are joined by a buxom lady of indeterminate age who spoke out with gusto. "Aye, 10 o'clock fer Crystal Peaks, luv."

And, indeed a No 33 pulled up at 1000 - NOT going to Crystal Peaks but only to Treeton, about half way there.   We quietly retreated to the cafe for a cuppa and to try to understand why the locals were getting it wrong - or were WE simply going mad? 

Reason 1 : the 33 timetable had changed twice in quick succession; at the end of July and then again at the end of August.  Not entirely conducive to the comprehension of complicated information - BUT

Reason 2 : (and the real unpleasantness at Rotherham) the potentially incomprehensible display of departures on the bus station stands.   Below is an extract re-created by fbb.

Route numbers all jumbled together, different day's times all jumbled together and no indication that buses to Crystal Peaks all go via Treeton.   Neither was there a clear indication of all the other places served by the network of routes to the Brinsworth area.  And only a bus-nut would contemplate the 32 to Sheffield as it goes a long, long way round.   An fbb map explains all - perhaps ...

Question? What is wrong with listing Monday to Friday departures, Saturday departures and Sunday departures for each route in turn? Maybe adding a summary of all buses to Canklow and Brinsworth for those just travelling locally. Or even better, posting copies of the timetable for each route - then we could actually work our when we might arrive as well! And a map is absolutely essential - and NOT one of those unhelpful and inaccurate London-style "spider" maps.

Frustrating for a visitor and, apparently, equally baffling to the regular traveller.  Despite the attempts of South Yorkshire Travel to obfuscate relatively simple information we did actually catch the 1030 to Crystal Peaks.

And why the differences between Monday to Friday and Saturday times?  Aha, that's easy!  On Monday to Friday the 33 "interworks" with the 27 which doesn't run on Saturdays.   Now that explains everything, doesn't it?

After all, buses are always run for the convenience of the company - why let passengers' needs get in the way?

That's just the Ticket!

and a break (sort of) from the saga of the Sheffield sojourn.

What, asks fbb in ancient and reminiscing mode, was "Videmat Self Service"?

Inside the bus was one of these unimposing boxes. In a scheme to reduce boarding times on one man operated busy routes, Sheffield and Manchester (and Leicester?) all used the system. In simple terms, if you had the correct fare, there was no need to queue to wait to be served by the driver - you just dropped the coins in the red hopper on the machine ...

... pressed the green button and your ticket was delivered. On it were printed images of your deposited coins. No, they weren't photocopied! The coins were used, effectively, as a stamp to impress the image on to the ticket via a carbon ribbon. Which is why the images were "backwards".

They were great fun and the aim was to keep all your half penny coins (decimal "tiddlers" you will remember) to get the longest ribbon of ticket possible. In the People's Republic of South Yorkshire, the dearest "Videmattable" fare, back in the halcyon days of the mid 1970s, was 14p - which meant a lengthy ticket of 28 impressed coins.

The systen didn't last, sadly. The machines we cumbersome; they often jammed and, of course they relied entirely on the honesty of the fare paying passenger. Metal washers worked well, as did all foreign coins; and plastic tokens would print quite nicely when mixed in the metal specie.

Pontefract Cakes were less successful and easily glued up the works, as did small square chunks of metal. Polos and Refreshers were crushed by the mechanism and made all the other coins very sticky to count.

But the system could only be "policed" with roving inspectors and, as the only record was a print of the coins, they offered no means of statistical analysis now deemed essential in a world which sees technology as the (often pointless) answer to all questions, even questions that no-one ever wanted to ask!

Oh, and they didn't speed up loading at all because they were slower than a man with a ticket machine! BUT THEY WERE FUN!!!

P.S. fbb wishes to stress that apart from ADDING the odd washer or foreign coin, and specialising in lots of half pennies, he NEVER paid an incorrect fare. With "friends in high places" his conscience simply would not allow it!

Thursday 9 September 2010

Sheffield Sojourn - Episode 3

From time to time ...

A further look at South Yorkshire Travel's area 8 guide is very revealing, revealing nonsense, that is!   Lets start with Stagecoach 120 which claims to run "about every 5 minutes"  Monday to Friday daytime. 
No it doesn't; there are eight buses an hour which translates to every 7 and a half minutes.   Mind you, First's 40 (in direct competition) also runs "about every 5 minutes", i.e. every 7 and a half minutes.   So you wouldn't have to wait long!   Buy why misquote the times?
Then there's the 30.   It says it runs via Broomhill.   But it doesn't, not really.   Agreed, geographically it does, just about, skirt the Broomhill area; but never would any Sheffielder catch the 30 to Broomhill or advise anyone else to do the same.   Incidentally, neither the 30, the 40 or the 120 admit to serving the Hallamshire Hospital; surely one of the most important likely stops needed by the occasional and unfamiliar traveller.

Then there's the 81!   Its distinctive feature is that it is the only bus that serves Greystones.  But this does not appear on the timetable summary - it's only a box on the map.   But what about these crazy frequencies? 
In fact buses leave Bents Green at 0550, 0650 then every 30 minutes to 1850, then hourly to 2250.   So where does "about every 40 minutes" come from?   Or, "about every 55 mins"?  Maybe someone has written a computer program which performs some weird mathematical manipulation of data rather than telling people what they want to know.   Now that IS a surprise!
And on Sundays we are told that the buses run "about every hour" - again TWADDLE!   Buses run EXACTLY every hour throughout the day.   Of course THIS leaflet avoids the service 88A confusion (see earlier blog) by ignoring the later Sunday evening journeys completely; so tough bananas if you want to get back to Greystones after 2000!

And for the final indignity.   The 83 and the 88 are shown as terminating at Banner Cross.   How can this POSSIBLY make sense?   The 83, like the 88, runs in a large loop Sheffield - Banner Cross - Ecclesall - Bents Green - Ecclesall - Banner Cross - Sheffield.  If it terminates anywhere, it terminates at Bents Green (which is what Stagecoach thinks it does - but then they only operate the service; South Yorkshire Travel knows better!!!).

A repeat of the fbb map is a reminder. (see previous blog!)

So:  The 40 and 120 don't run every 5 mins, the 30 doesn't run via Broomhill, the 81 runs either half hourly or hourly and not every 40 or 55 mins and the 83 and the 88 do not terminate at Banner Cross.   Apart from that, the "snapshot" of services is very clear - as clear as mud - a snapshot horribly out of focus!   So the question remains; do the compilers of these leaflets ever travel on the buses; do they know where the localities are?   Unlikely!

Monday 6 September 2010

Sheffield Sojourn - Episode 2

A rough guide - VERY rough!

fbb tries, sometimes, to be an "innocent abroad" and think like a first-time visitor.   So a browse through the offerings of the enquiry office at Sheffield Interchange revealed a series of area guides. The implication of the opening blurb is that the information will help with travel planning - it will provide "a snapshot of the local bus, train and tram services  from your area".   Hmmmm ...

The next pages give a diagram of the routes covered by the booklet; in this case Area 8, Bents Green, Dore, Ecclesall, Lodge Moor and Totley.   Looks very helpful ...
... until you look closer.   If you were really the innocent abroad which route would you use to Bents Green, for example?

The 81 is drawn as the most direct, but it isn't.  You need the 83 or the 88 which do NOT terminate at Ecclesall - they do a large one-way loop passing Ecclesall Church on the outward and the return leg of the journey.   Ecclesall is, like many suburban place names, a rather ill-defined area, but the church would seem to be a clear focal point. The fbb map explains what the buses do, with the Bents Green "loop" starting at Ecclesall Church.!
More worrying would be a possible trip to Dore.   
The box labelled "Dore & Totley" (the name of the station) implies that service 30, 97 and 98 are all available. 

Unfortunately the 30 goes nowhere near Dore & Totley Station which, although it IS (geographically) in the Parish of Dore it is about a mile from Dore and a mile from Totley.   Indeed there is no public transport from Dore & Totley Station to Dore Villlage as such, although the 98 gets you closest: for the "more mature" it is quite an uphill trek!

So don't use the 97 or 98  to get to Dore!

Lessons to learn.   Line diagrams need to be sensibly realistic.   Alright for London Undergound when you can't see anything anyway; but surely a more realistic map showing at least some landmarks would be easier to understand and give the traveller some confidence.

And, anyway, what about a train to Dore and Totley Station?   Having told me about a "snapshot" of services (including rail) the snapshot of the train service is blank!   I am referred to the South Yorkshire rail guide.   This, despite the fact that the service is at an hourly clockface interval throughout most of the day and the whole timetable would fit easily on the  "look elsewhere" page.

It's a good thing fbb is NOT an innocent abroad - if he were he would be befuddled totally by South Yorkshire's very rough rough guide!   But, if you think the map is less than helpful - wait till you try to unravel the timetable guides.

To be continued ...

Saturday 4 September 2010

Sheffield Sojourn - Episode 1

Getting there.

If you need convincing that Britain's railways are "getting it right", try a journey by East Midlands Trains (a Stagecoach company) from London to Sheffield.   No longer the tired decline of the old British Railways ...

... but the astounding magnificence of St Pancras - OK, paid for by Eurostar, but who cares!
There's the new East Midlands Parkway station with dedicated bus link to the airport;
Derby Station has been rebuilt and even good old Sheffield station has had a make over and looks really welcoming and clean.
The Meridian Trains, like their Voyager clones, are too claustrophobic and buffets are replaced by a trolley service but - they are quick and adequate.   There are two trains an hour between London and Sheffield, the quickest taking just a tad over two hours.

A very pleasing start to fbb's recent trip to the Steel City and a positive introduction to some less than ideal public transport facilities encountered later.   fbb's train departed St Pancras dead on time at 1455 and flew "like a bird" with not a single signal check until approaching Sheffield Station.   Arrival 3 minutes late.   A stroll across the new footbridge to the tram stop, a one-stop hop on a tram (Old Fogey passes being valid!) and a comfortable night in the Travelodge with the bonus of a panoramic view of the trams as they trundled over the Park Square delta junction.

So, a good night's sleep (sadly not - choice of window closed, too stuffy OR window open, too noisy) and ready for the next day of local exploration.

To be continued ...