Lothian Buses on Doors Open Day

Edinburgh’s Doors Open Day, organised by the Cockburn Association, is an opportunity once per year to see inside some of the city’s architecturally worthwhile buildings, as well as other buildings of public interest. This year’s programme can be seen here. For several years, Lothian Buses have opened up their Central Garage on the Saturday and each time I’ve missed it. This year, they were pushing it particularly hard via various social media channels, and I managed to round up some company to head to the north side of Princes Street.

We walked over from the Southside, which gave us ample opportunity to catch sight of a few of the vintage buses that were being used to operate the number 26 in honour of the big day. Below is a 90s throwback sighted at the foot of the Mound…

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Meanwhile, we captured this beauty at the top of London Road.

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Once we got down to Annandale Street, we discovered an enormous queue to get in (easily 1/4 mile long), but it was making steady progress, and we probably only waited 10 minutes before we were inside. As we came past the front of the depot, we saw what lay in store for us – bus tours!

Inside there was quite the hoopla going on, with people everywhere and all sorts of buses (and quite a few other vehicles) to look at. You could generally go inside the newer ones, while the vintage ones (pulled in from museums and the like) were for outside observation only. Of particular interest was seeing a bus used by East Coast Buses on services to Dunbar (no good photos, sorry), which really sets the standard for a high quality bus for use on rural services. From an Edinburgh-centric perspective, these brand new Volvo electric buses looked interesting. You could even walk underneath one! They were rather stumpy and it remains to be seen which routes they will be used on – they look most suited to use on regular circulators, but Edinburgh doesn’t have any of those…

Here’s an attempt to show a wider spread of the buses on show.

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Some buses seemed to be a long way from home…

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IMG_20170923_132106And finally the moment we had all been waiting for. Obviously the bus wash tour was fantastic fun – although it was rather like getting onto an evening rush hour bus in heavy rain really.

All in all, it was great to have the chance to see Lothian HQ. It’d be fun if they consider opening the doors to the tram depot at Gogar in future years.

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Buses in rural Sweden: a few recent anecdotes

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‘Hallandstrafiken: the best choice for travel’ reads the destination board on the front of the bus to the right. A recent visit to Haverdal, a rural community north of Halmstad in western Sweden, gave a few thoughts to take away.

The bus service provided to Haverdal is actually very good, with 25 services/day operating into town on weekdays, 12/day on Saturdays and 7/day on Sundays. I suspect there aren’t many rural communities of under 2000 people in the UK that brag a regular service like this. Buses are operated on a franchise basis for the local county public transit provider Hallandstrafiken, with the current franchise-holder being Arriva. While this has led to a number of changes over the years and much discussion in the local press about declining standards, the truth is that to anyone visiting from Britain, the service provided is excellent.

As already noted here, the connection between a lot of arriving trains at Halmstad and the buses is also good – it genuinely does manage to feel like an integrated travel system. On arrival at 7.45pm on a Monday night, we were able to connect smoothly onto an 8.00pm bus and had an unremarkable run out to Haverdal. The quality of the buses is very good, although there is no charging or Wi-Fi – perhaps to follow in future rounds of procurement?

A few observations and anecdotes though. The first being that after we arrived, we went out for a walk in the dark and happened upon the bus an hour later driving down the dark lanes of Haverdal. I stopped to take a photo. On the return from our walk, we found it again, driving in the opposite direction – nice coincidence I though, and I stopped to take another picture. The bus swerved towards me, a pedestrian on the verge on a dark country road and stopped. The driver opened their window and told me in no uncertain terms that photography was not allowed – a bit strange as it definitely is.

On another day, we headed off to nearby Harplinge on foot to get some bread from the excellent bakery. It rained so much that we decided to take the bus home – involving an exciting connection at Haverdalsbro, an interchange in the (relative) middle of nowhere. We jumped on in Harplinge, and the driver seemed so astonished by our requested destination that he in fact didn’t sell us a ticket to it. The driver on the second bus spent some time rectifying the issue, before deciding to let us travel for free. So much for integrated travel…

On our day of departure, the bus into Halmstad was being driven by a driver in the uniform of a different coach company – clearly, in the franchised service era, when there are staffing shortages, drivers can simply be brought in from elsewhere. Bizarrely, she seemed to have a better grasp of providing the best service possible than many of Hallandstrafiken’s in-house drivers. This includes the handy ability to sell tickets from rural Sweden all the way through the Copenhagen.

So, is Hallandstrafiken the best choice for travel? Well, it’s the only choice for travel unless you’re going to take a very expensive taxi, but it’s certainly not a bad choice. Buses are regular and comfortable, pricing is affordable, but the drivers can be a little … odd. I leave you with this rather nice photo of the 350 in Haverdal on a previous (summer) trip.

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Edinburgh to Haverdal

For a variety of reasons, we had booked to spend a week in Haverdal, a rural community north of Halmstad in western Sweden. This was done at short notice, but there were still good fares available a fortnight before departure for travel on EasyJet and we were able to redeem some Nectar points to take advantage of them. A 13:55 departure seems like a pleasant, middle-of-the-day flight but in reality I ended up feeling a little annoyed as we couldn’t really go to work but had to kick our heels during the morning.

In the end, we made a start from the house at about 10:30 and took the 14 to South Bridge. We then stopped in the Milkman for a good cup of coffee to kill a few more minutes, before popping round the corner to catch a 100 to the airport. I’ve already discussed the new buses to the airport,  but one feature I hadn’t noticed previously was the inclusion of live airport departure screens showing flight statuses, which I think is a good touch.

The upside of travelling in the middle of the day is that the airport bus is definitely not impeded in the way it is during the rush hour – we made good time out to the airport. Travelling with hand luggage only, we were able to pop straight upstairs and we were through security in under 5 minutes. While there were teething issues with the new security hall in Edinburgh, it really does seem to have found its rhythm. We headed for our usual hang-out, the No 1 Lounge only to be told it was full. Instead, we headed for the Aspire Lounge, which was so busy it felt like people were hovering waiting to take seats. We eventually found some nice seats by the window where we could watch the buses coming and going outside the terminal. Before long though, we headed for the gate and boarded. Departure was prompt and on-time, and we headed to the west, with a a good – if rainy – view of the three Forth bridges.

We arrived at Copenhagen Airport on time and made quick progress through the terminal. After buying a ticket to Halmstad (a source of frustration is that the Skånetrafiken vending machines won’t sell tickets to bus-only destinations in Halland), we took the first available train across the Öresund Bridge to Malmö. While border controls are no longer in force, the train still stops for an extended wait in Hyllie, which seems a little futile. Our stop at Malmö C gave us time to pick up some groceries and dinner, before we caught our onward train to Halmstad. We had a clear run up and despite picking up some delays in Skåne, we actually arrived in Halmstad on time, demonstrating that there is a fair bit of leeway in the timetable.

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We easily made our 15 minute connection onto the 350 bus to take us to Haverdal. Fortunately, the buses have returned to the bus station (having been in exile on my last visit), making it easy to catch. The ticket sold to us was very cheap – I can only assume that the system calculates what we should have paid to buy a through ticket and charges the difference, but details about this online are scant. While the run to Haverdal drags a little, especially as the bus does a loop through Harplinge, it was quick enough. Living in Edinburgh, it is a novelty to be on buses doing 50mph on dark country roads.

While it felt like the journey dragged out, the door-to-door travel time was only a little over 9 hours. Even if we had driven at the Danish/Swedish end, we wouldn’t have cut much off that.

Edinburgh to the East Neuk

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While my visit to Aberdeen had been in the pipeline for some time, a visit to the East Neuk of Fife for a couple of days came as a most unexpected surprise. Unsure of my own plans or energy levels after my trip to the north east, I had not made any arrangements but knew that I needed to join my companions – already insitu – during the course of a Saturday. This left me with the rare situation of deciding on the spur of the moment when to set off and how to travel. Sipping my cup of tea and checking train times, I noted that if I made it onto the 09:30 Scotrail service for Aberdeen, it would get me to Leuchars in a mere 53 minutes – 12 minutes quicker than most services. The time when I established this was 08:50. I decided to give it a go and threw the bits and pieces I needed into a bag while summoning a taxi using Gett(I may review Gett separately on a later occasion, but it’s a useful app in Edinburgh and London.) My car appeared within a few minutes and ferried me down to Waverley station quickly enough that I had time to buy my ticket and find a cup of coffee.

One of the more pleasant sides to spontaneous travel, especially a little closer to home, are the chance encounters. Looking for a good seat in the leading carriage, I ran into an old colleague which provided me with an hour of decent conversation and catching up en route to Fife. It was turning into a lovely looking morning, and the views from across the Forth Bridge, and along the south Fife coast were absolutely stunning. See below for a couple of examples.

Despite the train being stuffed with reservation labels, the passenger load was not all that bad. Presumably, a lot of people make reservations on their flexible tickets and then travel at other times. The reason for the speed of the Aberdeen services – and a plus for the eager traveller hoping to keep a table to themselves – is that upon departure from Haymarket the service runs non-stop to Leuchars. This meant that it didn’t feel like long at all until I was alighting round the corner from the old airbase and waving my train goodbye.

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I popped outside the station to catch the 99 to St Andrews, which was full but made a swift run, getting us to the bus station in around ten minutes. This is cash fare territory, and I was able to buy a through ticket to Crail and get change! The bus station was looking fresher than I remember it, but I suppose it merits investment as one of the smallest but busiest bus stations I’ve ever been to. When passing through last weekend, a real, playable piano had been provided for passengers’ entertainment. I didn’t have time to horrify passersby though, as my 95 – destined for Leven via the East Neuk – turned up shortly after I arrived. I hopped on and secured a good seat upstairs on the left hand side to ensure the best views.

The 95 is probably one of my favourite bus routes in Britain. The run from St Andrews as far as Anstruther is fantastically picturesque with some lovely rolling countryside and the blue ribbon of the North Sea always found on the left. The below is just one example of the view along the way, near to Kingsbarns. While it’s a good road to drive in any vehicle, doing it on the upper deck of a double decker gives you a far superior view – and I would recommend it to anyone on a fine day.

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About 25 minutes later I was in Crail, and two minutes’ stroll had me at my final destination. 2.5 hours door-to-door from suburban Edinburgh to the outer extremity of rural Fife using public transport is not bad at all, and the journey – segmented as it was – passed by very nicely. For what it’s worth, the area is well worth visiting too – the below photo is taken at the beach in Kingsbarns.

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To the Granite City

Last week I had to go to Aberdeen for a conference. This trip had been on the cards for almost a year, and I had put a fair amount of thought into how I wanted to travel there. The choices are not infinite though, and I have no particular interest in trying any of the road options on what is a fairly long drive. This left me with a choice between Scotrail, Virgin Trains East Coast or Crosscountry Trains. Scotrail naturally have the upper hand in offering the most services, while the other two offer better, long-distance rolling stock. At T-12 weeks, the choice was made easier by the fact that Virgin were selling 1st class tickets with railcard discounts for £18 one way – a very reasonable fare given the journey time of 2.5 hours and the standard of the soft product. I duly booked myself a round trip on Virgin.

On the morning of travel, I was up far too early given my train wasn’t until 10:28, so after having done some work at home, I ended up heading into central Edinburgh early to look for some breakfast. Despite killing time there, I still ended up at the station almost 40 minutes early. Fortunately, I was travelling with colleagues for the outbound leg, and one had already arrived so I wasn’t lonely. Once we had all assembled, we headed for our platform to find the train just arriving from Leeds.

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We piled on an made ourselves at home. My colleagues, who hadn’t been expecting to travel in 1st (I was in charge of travel arrangements) were pleasantly surprised. While the refurbished hard product on these trains looks the business, I have to say that in comfort terms it is a reduction in quality on what they had previously. Nonetheless, it’s a very pleasant setting to be in for a couple of hours on a weekday morning. This was improved by the friendly 1st class service – I find the Scotland-based crews for the Aberdeen and Inverness services are amongst the best out there. Despite the relatively early departure time, we were on a lunch menu – but with no hot items. Sandwiches and beer were the order of the day – and completely fine at that.

We made a good run going north. The weather in Edinburgh was changeable – August showers! Below on the left you can see the old Forth road bridge and the new Queensferry Crossing, as well as the somewhat cloudy weather. By the time we were crossing the Tay it was much foggier. No further photos were taken further north, as there was nothing to actually see. Aberdeen itself was obscured by some of the most miserable, stickiest mist I’ve ever encountered.

We arrived in Aberdeen a few minutes early, as the timetable has some fairly generous recovery time built in north of Dundee. A slow amble through the station/shopping mall had us at the bus station as we were heading for Hillhead, the home of Aberdeen’s student halls of residence. Google informed us that we would get there quickest on a Buchan Xpress, and using our plusbus tickets we duly tested the theory. It was certainly not a disappointing bus experience (note the 3/1 split of seats on the front row in the photo), although it seems a little peculiar to spend the first 500 metres creeping through the city centre picking up passengers like it is a local service. However, it did pick up the pace and got us where we were going in the time Google told us.

A few more, brief thoughts on the buses in Aberdeen. It’s a fairly well-provisioned city in terms of buses, although there are some issues. Perhaps the key one is the competition of multiple operators, meaning that – plusbus aside – you can’t buy a day ticket to cover them all. First Buses, responsible for running the 20 between the university and the city centre, was operating a limited timetable that stopped at 7pm – not much use for anyone wanting to get back at night. And, like in Edinburgh, the focus on Union Street for all bus routes seemed a little pointless at times. On the other hand, the ability of First to accept contactless payments puts them well ahead of many operators around the UK.

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Aberdeen is a mixed place – it looks like Scotland but it feels different. It’s by the sea, but it takes ages to walk to the beach. It wasn’t long before the conference was over and it was time to head south again, this time on the 14:52 headed for London Kings Cross. I won’t repeat material, as much of the service was the same as on the northbound. One difference was that the lunch service included hot options, and I had a very pleasant courgette risotto (at half past three in the afternoon…) with a crisp glass of white wine. The crew were excellent, and I remember them from previous occasions in the east of Scotland. As is often the case on this route, the time flew by and it wasn’t long before we were back in Edinburgh – on time – having enjoyed the panorama of fantastic sea views for much of the journey.

I suppose on a future visit to the north east, it would be worth trying one of the competing options for the sake of comparison, but in terms of price point and comfort, Virgin is currently the standout option when heading north of Edinburgh on the east coast.

The curse of Virgin Trains East Coast 19:25 from Edinburgh to Stirling

Earlier this week, circumstance presented me with an opportunity to re-run my abortive attempt to travel on the 19:25 from Edinburgh to Stirling a few weeks ago. Little did I know that I would manage to get caught up in the palaver of a signalling fault between Polmont and Falkirk Grahamston. You can see the full series of updates from the usual suspects – and the ensuing confusion, by following the #polmont hashtag on Twitter. Suffice to say that I had the impression that the issue had been resolved by the time I set out, but this was not to be the case.

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Having learnt from last time, I left the house at 18:50 and missed the 14 I was aiming for by just a whisker. I ended up on the 2 running a few minutes behind, which enjoyed a non-stop run up the hill towards Newington. The 2 doesn’t go to Waverley, and I managed a swift change onto a 3 on South Clerk Street – unusually the stop was deserted, so I really did have to leap off and look eager for the bus behind. In the picture you can see my 2 taken from the ‘driver’s seat’ of the 3. The 3 made good progress, despite the festival crowds, and I was inside Waverley station by 19:10.

It was at this stage that it became apparent that all was not well on the signalling front. The 19:33 Scotrail service to Dunblane was cancelled – and the 19:25 to Stirling was showing as delayed to run in the 19:33 path. Not to worry – a few minutes’ delay is dealable with.

2017-08-07 19.22.45I made my way along to platform 2 and the train arrived on time at 19:20. It obviously took a while to expel the hoards of festival-goers, but I was on fairly promptly and settled down at a table. The cancelled Dunblane service had generated extra passengers, so it was busier than expected, although by no means close to full. The slightly puzzled guard mentioned the signalling issues, and also noted that Scotrail smart cards would be accepted.

We got away at around 19:35 and made very slow progress as far as Ratho/Newbridge, where we pulled into a passing loop and the guard told us the happy news that signalling in Polmont had once again failed, with no prognosis for the length of the delay. As it happened, we were only at a standstill for around ten minutes before we were back on the move – but progress as far as Falkirk was glacial – we didn’t arrive there until around 20:35! The run from Falkirk through to Stirling was as it should be – swift – and with some wonderful August evening skies.

A quick walk had me at my destination a little after nine. A definite improvement on the last time I tried this route – but still over two hours door-to-door.

On the grape vine, I gather that the 19:25 from Edinburgh to Stirling – a recent addition to the timetable to give Stirling an extra King’s Cross train each day in addition to the Highland Chieftain – is particular prone to cancellation from Edinburgh onwards. Presumably, the rake goes straight back to Edinburgh after terminating in Stirling, and when running late it is easier to let Scotrail take the strain?

An easy journey made difficult

You would think that a journey of 41 miles by road in Scotland’s densely populated central belt, which should take no more than 55 minutes in a car, would be just as easy by public transport. On a recent, beautiful July evening this was not the case.

I left the house just after 7pm, aiming to catch the 7.33pm to Stirling. Lothian Buses put in their finest performance and no bus was forthcoming at my local stop until 7.20pm.

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Not to worry! Lothian Buses tend to be fairly swift outside of peak hours. Not on this occasion, unfortunately. Despite having arrived ‘late’ by my estimation, we dawdled all the way to North Bridge – presumably the driver’s ticker declaring that we were ‘early’ meant that we needed to waste time.

A quick trot down the Scotman’s steps brought me to the station at 7.35pm. The 7.33pm was long gone – never mind. I knew that the 7.25pm Virgin East Coast service was delayed – that would do. In the meantime, I waited on a sunny platform 8.

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It was clearly one of those evenings. The 7.25pm service was getting later and later. I fielded multiple questions from confused passengers on the platform. ‘Yes, it is okay to wait here – it will be a long train.’ ‘Yes, you can you use a GroupSave ticket on this service. No, we are not in peak hours – it’s almost 8 o’clock. Am I sure? Well I don’t work on the railway…’ Yet further delay. Eventually, it rolled into the station – almost sheepishly – at 8.10pm.

 

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Despite some reservations about the end destination being non-existent, I boarded and settled down in a deserted carriage. Excellent – a full table – forward travel by the window – to myself. Unfortunately it was not to be. At 8.20pm the service was cancelled on technical grounds, having gone nowhere. So much for that – at least I got to play with the slam doors. This gave me just enough time to trot through the station to catch the 8.33pm, where the silver lining was that the rolling stock featured a first class compartment – mine to use as Dunblane services do not feature first class meaning the compartment is derestricted.

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It wasn’t all bad. Being a full hour later than expected, Scotland’s central belt was looking rather splendid.2017-07-17 21.14.39

It was a smooth run through to Stirling, with some idling at each stop indicating we were making good time. After arriving a full minute early, a brisk walk through the quiet streets of Stirling – still beautifully light – had me at my destination by 9.45pm. Just 2 hours and 40 minutes after leaving home.2017-07-17 21.41.18

It’s fortunate I was in no hurry to get anywhere! It was clearly not Virgin’s week, given that the next morning I had planned to catch the 10.30am King’s Cross service but noted hours beforehand that it had been cancelled between Inverness and Edinburgh – leaving me to make haste to catch the preceding Scotrail service. Still, it’s the middle of July – who needs to be anywhere?