Saturday 30 April 2011

Initié a l'informatique; - peut-être!

Computer literate - perhaps.

Simple question for fbb.   How does on-line public transport information compare, say in London ou à Paris?   A previous blog about bus stops (read again) included a picture of a route 69 "flag" at Gambetta,
the terminus of a Paris bus route ideal for tourists preferring sunshine to subterranean "Métropolitain".   It starts at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery (Gambetta) with its memorials to oodles of famous french folk ...
... e.g. Georges Bizet who wrote the opera Carmen.  It ends at Champ de Mars (Mars Field - doesn't sound so good in English) where you would find a rather exuberant copy of something spectacular from Blackpool.  Or was it the other way round?  Surely not!
On the way you would pass (one way streets permitting)  Opéra, Bastille, Cathédrale de Notre Dame, Musée du Louvre, Les Tuileries and Les Invalides; a mini tour of the great City of Romance.

Now we insular Brits have a problem with using the website for RATP, Régie Autonome des Transports Parisien, the Paris transport authority. Johnny foreigner has written it all in French! Sacrébleu, formidable, quelle horreur, zut alors!   (but see below).  By clicking haphazardly on various buttons...
...we can certainly find lots of lovely maps.   Firstly a diagram version of the main daytime Monday to Saturday City services - a boon to the average tourist.
Then there is a fully detailed massive street plan showing every stop.
And, finally, you can navigate to a detailed diagram of every bus route.   Magnifique!   The terminus at Gambetta is the blob on the right.   Everything is consistently colour coded with a pale-ish cyan reserved for the 69 throughout.
The french for timetables is "horaires" and there's a button so labelled. fbb becomes very "excité, animé, mème délirant" at the thought of real timetables.    But, "à sa grande déception" all he finds is this:-
Yet again just a list of the next available departures from Gambetta; not a timetable in sight.   Further persistent probing provides one of these:- RATP's stunning offering for "les horaires de la ligne".   Oh dear; and you thought London was bad.
There are three similar panels, as here for most of the year, then special versions for July and August.   The frequencies are grimly difficult - every 19 minutes on Sundays, every 17 minutes mid-evening in Summer; even every 20 is tough on a cold winter's evening if you don't know when the last one left!

So timetable secrecy seems to be a pan European thing - one of the many astounding benefits of Membership of the European Union. London merely meekly follows where Europe leads.  Quel dommage. Perhaps that's why our friends from across La Manche have a reputation for laid-back timekeeping; they haven't a clue when the next bus will come!
P.S.  At the top of the RATP home page there is a row of tiny little flaggy symbols.   Click on the Union Flag and you get SOME of the site in English.

But it's more fun to explore en français!

And finally!  This sign could produce a wry smile or two for the uninitiated.   We Brits tend to translate French into English literally, word for word, often guessing badly.
The wheelchair symbol is pretty universal, but the yellow triangle warns that the bus is unsuitable for users of "fauteuils roulants", literally "rolling armchairs".  So if you want to stick with your rolling armchair, don't try to get on a service 69 bus!  [It is, however, a more socially inclusive phrase than "disability buggy"; perhaps we should start using the English equivalent here.]

next blog : due on Sunday May 1st  

Friday 29 April 2011

A Right Royal Blog

The original "Royal" man was Thomas Elliott, who, in 1880, began operating horse drawn vehicles from Royal Blue Mews in Avenue Lane, Bournemouth.   This cul-de-sac today forms the back yard of Marks and Spencers!
He bought his first motor "charabanc" in 1913 and continued to expand thereafter. The company was sold to Western and Southern National in 1934 and continued to develop a significant network of express coach services in the South and South West and nationally, in conjunction with the Associated Motorways consortium. 
Its vehicles, adorned in the distinctive blue (royal blue!) livery, were of high quality and recognised as such on the road.   Herewith a couple of beautifully preserved coaches leaving London's Victoria coach station.
The company also produced some highly original posters, this one discovered at Notting Hill Underground station during a refurbishment!
In 1971 the operation was absorbed into the new National Express brand and hitherto smart blue Bristols ...
... lost their blue in favour of rather un-regal white with the Royal Blue name in red.  The end finally came in 1986 when all National Express "local" names were banned.   The rather prosaic route numbers of todays express services hold no clue as to their splendid origins.

One lesser-known aspect of the Bournemouth base was a magnificent "double deck" bus station at the Exeter Road and Terrace Road junction.
The lower floor was for the Royal Blue network, whilst more humble buses used the upper deck.   It was in the 60s that timetable and fares guru, Barry Doe, then a student, worked out of the upper level as a conductor!   The building was destroyed by fire in 1976 and its place is now taken by ...
... nothing more than a humble car park, hidden tastefully (?) behind a bank of trees.   Bournemouth's "new" bus station is located somewhat apart from the centre of town oustide the Railway Station just off Holdenhurst Road.
Like most aspects of modern day public transport, the richness of the recognisable Royal Blue regime will never return to our roads. Megabus just doesn't sound, or look,  the same.
Had it still been in operation, perhaps Kate and Will might have gone for an luxury ride to a honeymoon in the West Country?   Maybe not!

next blog : due on Saturday April 30th  

Thursday 28 April 2011

Red Funnel Reprise

Red Jet to London?  An Integration Investigation.
See also "Noteworthy Nomenclature Notoriety" (read again)

Buried in the bowels of the official Red Funnel web site is a detailed history of all the vessels owned.  Many do not have pictures; which is odd.   You would have though the company might want to remember what boats it owned.
This is "Ruby", the first iron boat, taken over from a competitor in 1861 and used for excursions to Swanage.  It was one of the four boats that gave their names, more their colours, to the company flag.
The other three were "Pearl", "Emerald" and "Sapphire".   This next picture, again from Red Funnel's site, shows the first vessel to carry the "Balmoral" name docked at Sandown Pier.
The boat was in service from 1900 to 1947.  Its more celebrated namesake successor is now owned by the "Waverley" company and returns to the Island with a nostalgic cruise programme every year.
One little-known development between 1933 and 1938 was the operation of a fast Solent crossing.  The motor launch was called "Sea Coach Island Enterprise", carried 11 passengers and made the crossing in 35 minutes.   The excellent book, "Red Funnel and Before" by R.B.Adams (published in 1986 and available second-hand on Amazon), gives details and this picture:-
So, get to the point fbb.  In theory, at least, the modern fast "Red Jet" passenger-only service ought to be a link in one of the best examples of multi-modal integrated transport in the country.   Here is a theoretical journey:-
1015    Newport (Isle of Wight) bus station, service 1
1038    Red Funnel terminal West Cowes
1045    Red Jet fast ferry
1110    Terminal 2 Town Quay
1115    Free City Link bus
1122    Southampton Central Station
1128    SouthWest Trains
1249    London Waterloo
Two buses, one ferry, one train, two hours and thirtyfour minutes.   Pretty impressive eh?

But how practicable is such a trip?   Seven minutes at West Cowes to buy your ticket; risky, so catch a bus 10 minutes earlier; doubly risky at peak times, the ferry doesn't take standing passengers.   The crossing and thus the connection with the free bus is generally very reliable with no traffic jams on the Solent Crossing.  But the advertised crossing time of 25 minutes, a bit like plane flight times, can be extended if parking the boat is tricky or alighting passengers are a bit on the slow side.

Six minutes at Southampton Central station to tramp across the footbridge and catch the fast train.   Easy-peasy if you have already bought a through ticket but not so do-able if you are less than certain and unwilling to buy your ticket at West Cowes, preferring to deal with a proper "railway" man.

So leave half an hour earlier to be certain and your journey now totals 3 hours and 14 minutes - far less attractive.

"Wouldn't it be luvverly" if you could book a through ticket from Newport?   But you can't.   Once upon a time you could buy rail tickets at Newport bus station, but no longer.   And even if you could, there would be two "add-ons" to your rail ticket, namely ferry and bus, and "the system" does not allow that.

So you have a choice.   Take a risk; suffer stress and anguish and HOPE you make it in 2.5 hours approx or dawdle for 45 minutes longer and be bored out of your mind on an unnecessarily tedious trip.   Or, maybe, battle with the interweb and book rail plus ferry in advance and thus enjoy the privilege of ploughing through the railways' neat, tidy and easily understood fares system for an hour or so.
There is no technological barrier to selling integrated tickets for integrated journeys and accurately disributing the proceeds amongst the journey's constituent companies.   The barrier is "the bottom line". What's in it for us?   Will it increase our revenue stream?   Or, to put it another way, it's all too much hassle for the three separate companies involved.

Also of note.  (?)  The bus fare is a "rip-off" £3.50 single for a 19 minute journey; hardly an encouragement to leave the car at home.

We don't make it easy, do we?

next blog : due on Friday April 29th  

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Nempnett Thrubwell : a Challenge

Yes it does exist!   It's a village approx 13 miles southwest of Bristol. St Mary's Church is a magnificent building dominating this hamlet of some 190 inhabitants.
It was immortalised in at least two songs by the late (died 1974) great Adge Cutler of the Wurzels, who lived at nearby Nailsea.
But, using all the resources of modern technology, can you get there by bus?   Transport Defunct doesn't seem to know what it is doing ...
... and offers several reasons - one of which is "because there isn't any"; and suggests that you "try again".  Maybe someone will have introduced a new route whilst the keys are tapped.

Whereas Traveline offers the following timetable search ... 
...followed by a list of 11 services.   Having laboriously ploughed through them, it would appear that none of them actually serve that delightfully dottily named village.   Traveline invites its enquirer to look at maps of all these 11 services, yet another tedious and time consuming trudge through the tomes of technology - which fbb decided was a step too far.   And, anyway, there isn't a map button to click on!
It is beginning to look as if the nearest fbb can get is Ubley.

Perhaps he should PHONE Traveline.   Does he  know no fear?  It costs money, and if fbb, with all his consummate skill in time tabulation is struggling, how will the highly trained staff of Traveline fare?   Oh, go on, be brave (and be apologetic - they might think it's a joke).

Three button-press menus later, a real person couldn't offer any reply unless fbb could say where he wanted to start from.   "Anywhere" doesn't work the computer.  Even the suggestion "Bristol" was unacceptable. Apparently, according to "the man", you have to know WHERE in Bristol - which fbb didn't!   How can you know where to depart from if you don't know which bus is taking you?

It's going well, so far.  The call cost about £1 and probably would have elicited "nul points" had fbb not been tenaciously persistent.  Helpful to the uninformed traveller - it wasn't.

Eventually, fbb was offered a a journey from Temple Meads (which definitely isn't central Bristol, shouldn't Traveline have at least known that?) with change onto a service 754 and a 36 minute (sic!) walk from Ubley.
This useful map is from North East Somerset's web site.

The plot thickens.  Transport Defunct's on-line map shows a bus stop at "Nempnett Thrubwell, Breach Hill Farm", maybe only 10 minutes from the Church.
That would be better for fbb's arthritic limbs!   Sadly, despite admitting to a bus stop (the little red-and-black lollipop), Transport Defunct still can't find any buses that serve it.

O.K.   Confession time.   fbb didn't REALLY want to get to Nempnett Thrubwell by bus.   He has already been, by car, and, apart from the splendid St Mary's Church, there's not a lot to see.   A few cows, perhaps.   But, "and aye there's the rub" [Hamlet's "to be, or not to be" soliloquy from Bill the Bard of Avon], with all the latest expensive technology, no-one could give the simple answer, "there are NO buses to Nempnett Thrubwell and it's over half an hour's walk from the nearest bus stop.  Try a taxi."

A real man in a real enquiry office would have known that.

Unless, of course,  the ghost bus to Breach Hill Farm runs silently through the gloom at the stroke of midnight.  [sounds of "Scooby Doo" type wailing and cackling;  "we'd have got there by bus if it hadn't been for those pesky kids!"]

next blog : due on Thursday April 28th  

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Noteworthy Nomenclature Notoriety

What's in a Name?

In 1861 two ferry companies operating jointly between Southampton and the Isle of Wight merged to fight off competition from an upstart third operator.   The "newcomer" was ultimately taken over in 1865. O, the joys of deregulation, even then!    The 1861 company was registered as "The Southampton Isle of Wight and South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Company Limited", still the longest company name in UK.

In 1935 it adopted the trading name of ...
... something to do with the way the vessel was painted.  (!)  As its full name suggests, the company ran a variety of leisure services to several destinations along the south coast but by the early 1960s had settled down to providing a passenger and car ferry big-boat service to West and East Cowes on the Isle of Wight.   fbb remembers his first vehicle ferry trip back them.  The vessel was a bow loader ...
... and vehicles were spun round on a turntable in the blunt end (called "the stern", we believe) so that they could drive back off easily at the sharp end (which was also quite blunt!) upon arrival at East Cowes. Cars could also be unloaded through a side door at West Cowes.  Because of these West Cowes calls, the timetable was not as simple as "every hour".  Two of the original vessels, known as the "Castle" class, were subsequently "stretched" and provided with a stern ramp.   Netley Castle joined the fleet in 1974 and was the first purpose built RORO [roll on roll off] ferry for Red Funnel.
But in 1969 a minor revolution occurred with the start of a fast ferry service between Southampton and West Cowes.  This was the very first commercial Hydrofoil service in UK.   The picture clearly shows how such a vessel works.  As it gains speed its hull rises up on "foils" which work like an aircraft wing but in the water. The crossing time was just over 20 minutes as opposed to and hour or more on conventional ships.
The "Shearwaters" were fast but noisy, bumpy and often smelt strongly of diesel fuel.  They also couldn't operate in fog, simply because they couldn't travel slowly enough.

In 1989, to howls of protest from the motoring fraternity of West Cowes, the big ferries stopped calling there and a more memorable hourly service was introduced to East Cowes only.   The first quieter (and bigger, smoother and less smelly) catamaran "Red Jet" arrived in 1991 for the passenger only route.
It is successors to this vessel that, today, maintain the half hourly service to West Cowes.   Meanwhile, back on the car ferry route, April 1994 saw thwe arrival of the first of three brand new "Raptor" class vessels, the "Red Falcon".
After only 10 years' service these boats were, literally, chopped into four large chunks and an extra bit addded in the middle to make them longer, plus an extra deck to make them taller.  Now they can carry 220 cars at a time.
On the downside, however, the boats no longer have enough inside seating for a full load.   So bring your sou'westers and oilskins if you are travelling in bad weather!

On the upside, though, they still serve cooked food, especially a cracking full English Breakfast.   fbb's favourite!

Back in the 80s, whilst Wightlink introduced the dreaded "computers" for bookings, Red Funnel still used hardboard clipboards with lists of names written down with a "pen"; and a friendly gent in peaked cap, white shirt and smart uniform (with golden buttons) checking you off in the departure lanes at the East Cowes terminal. It all seemed efficient enough and, somehow, made the homeward journey feel a lot better.  Alas, no longer: that personal service has long gone and Red Funnel is computerised.

The obvious benefits are; for the passenger, much longer check-in times and longer queues to buy a ticket whilst, for the poor residents of East Cowes, huge tailbacks at busy times as cars attenpt to break in to the terminal area.   Progress indeed - NOT.

1861 to 2011 - Red Funnel is 150 years old.   All together now:-

  Happy Birthday to you  
  Happy Birthday to you  
  Happy Birthday Red Funnel...
  Happy Birthday to You  

Shame on you, you weren't singing.

A "Red Funnel Reprise" blog will follow later.

next blog : due on Wednesday April 27th  

Monday 25 April 2011

Sheffield Subsistology*

All you Need to Know (do you care?) about
The History of Sheffield bus stops.

[*Subsistology - the study of bus stops. See earlier blog (read again)]

Trams in Fitzalan Square in 1913 (courtesy Charles Hall's book) showing typical city centre enamelled flat sheet stop "flags"    A similar style was also used for buses until the late 30s.
The immediately pre-war, and certainly post war, the standard stop in Sheffield was made from a heavy cast alloy.  This the basic bus stop; there were similar designs for trams.
Also clearly displayed throughout the city were stops that were "Fare Stages", points at which the fare would leap to the next higher value by as much as 1 (old) penny.
This particular design had green glass reflectors round the edge - presumably so platform staff could spot them in subdued lighting and charge the correct fares.  The bus route sign was also endowed with green reflectors...
...and the arrow was screwed on so that it could be rotated through 180° if necessary.   The fourth in the set was one of these delights.
Although not clear from the photograph, this was adorned by very pretty blue reflectors.  These signs were located mainly in country villages outside the main City area.  Meanwhile, in busy city locations (with multiple stops) and at Pond Street Bus Station, magnificent oak framed signs were installed.  fbb's was recovered from Vulcan Road, a main steelworks departure point.  It is in need of some refurbishment!!
The lettering was painted IN REVERSE on the back of glass; a skill which seems to have been lost in recent years.   "What did you do for a living, grandpa?"   "Eee lass, I were a backwards painter at Queens Road Works."

When Pond Street bus station was "done up a bit" and renamed "Central Bus Station" new signs, also hand painted, but now on plastic, were installed.
Out "on the road" a variety of bits and pieces were used up to the late 50s - as here on Derbyshire Lane, newly served in 1959 as part of a tram replacement scheme.
By the early 60s, a universal yellow "flag" with an entwined STD logo became standard and this was amended from 1973 by the simple expedient of sticking on a PTE logo label.  Again fbb's example is a bit "dilapidated",much like fbb himself,  but you get the idea.
fbb is currently searching his chaotic collection of old colour slides for a good picture - pro tem this will have to do.  For a brief period pre-1973 a whizzo new logo appeared on buses and stops supplanting the entwined and distinguished STD with a more prosaic "Sheffield Transport" as shown here, fuzzily.
The lettering below the words "Bus Stop" says "via Infirmary Road" although the 100 doesn't go that way! Next comes white on green "one man bus, pay on entry", then very revolutionary; then the fare stage in white on blue and finally the routes that use the stop.   The photo was taken in about 1971, so the baby is now about 40.  Makes fbb feel very old indeed.   Only routes 57 and 58 run in 2011, via different routes but still serving Stocksbridge.
So, fbb, in contemplative mood as usual, wonders whether the assortment of modern bus stop adorned-with-vinyl designs will still be around in the another 60 years or so.   Unless longevity improves dramatically, fbb won't be around to check; but there might be the odd blog reader who will.   Maybe you have to be a really "odd" blog reader to bother?

Grateful thanks to neighbour and bus-chum Alan for taking photos of fbb's collection.

Lest you should dare to ask, ALL fbb's stop signs were gifted by Sheffield Transport Department.  fbb was NOT (most definitely NOT, even when just "bb") in the habit of shinning up bus stop poles with a screwdriver.

next blog : due on Tuesday April 26th