14 August 2020

Travelling Along The Bure Valley

It had been a scorcher. Almost a week of consecutive days when the temperature had easily exceeded 30C. Before this mid-August heatwave, I'd chosen to support a heritage railway and booked return tickets with the Bure Valley Railway, on their narrow gauge line from Wroxham to Aylsham. The company re-opened last month, having made their business 'Covid Secure' and offered a handy online booking system for travel, that was fully interactive.

The Yellow timetable was in force, that appeared to have been introduced specifically in these post-Covid times. It seemed to be inefficient in terms of number of trains required - three - when putting back some departures by a few minutes would require just two locomotives and rakes of coaches. But the trio of trains required was deliberate to utilise turnaround times, so that the guard and member of station staff at the route's termini could thoroughly clean the coaches before the next journey.

I selected the outward journey and was not forced to choose a return. I could, if I wished, decide this on the day, though availability couldn't be guaranteed. For those who wanted to commit to a return journey, this needed to be notified at the time of booking. I opted for this as my trip coincided with connections with Greater Anglia's Norwich - Sheringham service at the adjacent Hoveton & Wroxham main line station.

An adult return fare is £14.50 and a child return is £7.00. The adult return had increased by 50p since 2019, which is very restrained considering like so many others, the BVR's existence relies solely on seasonal and discretionary custom, and their business was forced to close for many months earlier in the year. And, as I was to discover, their trains cannot carry as many passengers has they ordinarily would in the height of the summer season, so total revenue would be down on previous years.

I first travelled on the BVR a few years after it opened. I don't recall the year, but the occasion formed part of a family holiday in Norfolk and my father assures me there is some camcorder footage that I'm now very keen to review! What I do recall from this visit some twenty-something years ago, is how pristine the railway way. I vividly recall being of the opinion that the line's reopening as a narrow gauge railway was without consideration of cost. This view was one of naivety, of course, since everything is undertaken with one eye on the bean counters, but the comprehensive feel the railway had and the fact it covered some considerable distance - nine miles - was very impressive.

The BVR also benefits from the trackbed not being built on. Although the line closed for traffic before the infamous 'Beeching Report', it remained open for freight, with BR closing the line in 1982. It therefore remained devoid of trains for just eight years, during which time volunteers with the assistance of Norfolk County Council, whom the BVR refer to as 'enlightened' effectively rebuilt the railway but in narrow gauge, and Aylsham was once again linked to Wroxham and the first passengers carried on 10 July 1990, thirty-eight years after the last passengers were carried.

In fact, and unbeknown to me at the time, 2020 marks the 30th Anniversary of the BVR. The line has been in operation as a miniature gauge railway for exactly as long as it was used exclusively for freight (1952-1982). Congratulations to the husband-and-wife team who now operate the railway on a not-for-profit basis and who have made significant steps to ensure their popular attraction (carrying 100,000 passengers a year) is able to operate in this so-called 'new normal'.

I brought my children along with me for my trip, and parked at Grantham station before boarding the 1011 EMR service direct to Norwich. It was formed of 158854 and we departed punctually and remained on time throughout. The section of route through Thetford Forest always puzzles me: the line twists and turns with automatic half-barrier crossings yet a line speed of 90mph is permitted. In contrast the slow lines on the ECML between Grantham and Peterborough permit a maximum line speed of 80mph.

Norwich station was fairly quiet. I've become accustomed to one-way systems in shops and the station's Co-op was no different, with yellow and black-striped safety tape-marked arrows on the floor showing the advisable route. Sadly, the layout of the shop ensured you had to double back, but thankfully no-one seemed to care.

The 1245 Greater Anglia service to Sheringham was showing on time but the inbound arrival at 1241 was late so I checked on realtimetrains.co.uk and saw the train wasn't due until 1247. There was a signalling problem, which I mused would almost certainly not have happened under the old system of mechanical semaphores and block posts! But hey, progress aside, I could now at least see its location using my track map of choice, Tracksy.

We didn't leave until 1254 which was now starting to concern me as I'd booked us on the 1315 BVR departure to Aylsham. We arrived at Hoveton & Wroxham, aboard 755328, at 1307 and made a purposeful dash across the adjacent footbridge. There a representative of BVR was stood in the booking office and after detailing my reference from the online booking system, was presented with two boarding passes, one for each direction. We had three minutes to walk behind the manual turntable and along the platform where our train was stood, ready to depart. We'd been allocated compartment A5. In this direction, coach A was the leading coach and compartment 5 was the rear-most within it.

All this dashing around meant I wasn't able to fully appreciate the Class 755 'Flirt' trains that GA introduced last year amidst a complete hailstorm of problems. My enjoyment of travelling aboard trains is quite simple. Does it have effective air-conditioning (needed more than ever on a day like today), can the guard's announcements be heard and how loud is the engine? Fortunately, this Stadler product fitted the bill in all areas. The air-conditioning was excellent, so too was the clarity of the guard's announcement. And unlike all new trains (other than the Mk 5 coaches?) the '755s' have power packs in between two centre coaches, which means the diesel generators are located in this one location and not under individual coaches, so there was almost no noticeable engine sound.

Yes, the seats are what a friend of mine would call 'arse breakers', but journeys aboard these trains are reasonably short. I certainly plan to return to travel more extensively on these new trains. 

Their planned introduction was not without controversy. There was no requirement in the franchise agreement for Greater Anglia to introduce Driver Only Operation (DOO) beyond what the operator had inherited to/from and around London, but the company intended on downgrading its guards to customer service assistants, whose mandatory presence and safety-critical training would not be required. This then heralded weeks of strike action by the RMT union and the company backed down, though subsequently negotiated with train driver union ASLEF a new method of working, which sees the driver take over full control of door release and closure. While the guard continues to be required for the train to operate, there now runs the risk of one being accidentally left on the platform. I understand guards continue to be trained in door operation, and can step in during times of degraded working.

Back to the BVR and our steam locomotive was No. 6 'Blickling Hall', a 2-6-2 ZB Class Tender Locomotive, painted in Great Eastern Railway Blue. It was built by Winson Engineering and delivered at Easter 1994. Blickling Hall is a Jacobean mansion, owned by the National Trust, just outside Aylsham.

The line is single-track with passing loops. Network Rail call these 'dynamic loops', which always raises a smile. The first passing loop is in fact Coltishall station, which has an island platform. We passed No. 1 'Wroxham Broad' hauling a Wroxham-bound train. 

After we'd all alighted at Aylsham - BVR headquarters - the train was shunted out and back into the opposing platform (one). No. 6 was detached and revered down the 'through road' to the rear of the train and into the depot yard where a manually-operated turntable is located. The loco was turned here and revered onto the rake of coaches. Platform 1 was used as it can be cordoned off, so intending passengers are kept at bay until the train has been adequately sanitised.

We returned on the same train at 1500. We were also assigned the same compartment. We were slightly delayed leaving as a family with one of their party in a wheelchair arrived late and were accommodated in the accessible coach. Each train is particularly lengthy, comprising eight coaches (A-H). The guard's compartment is in the centre (coach E). Being at the rear of the train for the return journey saw an increase in comfort, no doubt benefitting from us being some considerable distance from the locomotive. Our delay enabled No. 1 'Wroxham Broad' to enter the station with its Aylsham-bound service, rather than wait outside as it is probably booked to. We used the passing loop at Coltishall to pass No. 8 'John of Gaunt'.

I noticed that none of the intermediate stations at Brampton, Buxton and Coltishall are in use at the moment. This is probably due to guards having no role to play in ticket sales, which take place at the termini stations or online. And of course with social distancing in evidence, it could be there is insufficient capacity at times. It's a frustrating decision to take, though one that BVR has presumably calculated worthwhile as patronage at these stations is probably low.

Upon arrival at Wroxham, passengers are ushered off the platform and this is then cordoned off. A one-way system is in operation, keeping intending passengers for the next departure separate from those leaving. We stood and watched our loco being turned on the manual turntable at Wroxham before having a look around the bookshop located on the station. We then walked over to the main line Hoveton & Wroxham station and boarded the 1627 service to Norwich.

The information screens showed this as being on time, but realtimetrains.co.uk said otherwise - the train as four minutes late, which again rang alarm bells as we had just eleven minutes at Norwich before our Manchester Piccadilly train departed at 1656. And of course realtimetrains.co.uk was right and the information screen was wrong! At 1631 GA 755413 arrived and we were soon on our way, calling additionally at Salhouse on this journey. Whether we genuinely made up time or a large amount of slack is given, we arrived in Norwich two minutes early! Phew. We headed to Platform 2B and caught the EMR Class 158 (whose number I didn't take, but did notice one of the coaches had the windows open so steered clear of that one as it was a surefire way of knowing that the air-conditioning wasn't up to much).

A lightening strike at Three Horse Shoes to the east of Whittlsea saw us delayed by 9 minutes, and upon arrival in Grantham we were just 4 minutes late.

The day was thoroughly enjoyable. My only concern is the reliability of the Bittern Line service (Norwich - Sheringham). Two delayed journeys had the possibility of thoroughly messing up my best-laid plans. Fortunately they didn't so I'm not too concerned, but if I plan on recreating the day, I may amend my travel plans just in case!

18 June 2020

Gibraltar Update - January 2020

It has been almost two years since I last visited Gibraltar and I’m pleased to report that, overall, very little has changed during this time. The major advantage of this was that I spent far less time noting down changes and more time enjoying myself. And of course a little stability to a public transport network has many positive effects on its users.

This is Europa Point, the southernmost tip of Gibraltar, from where Africa can be seen. Likewise, time was residents of Morocco could see a Dennis Dart in public service from across the Strait of Gibraltar. G9509D is seen working Service 2, the most frequent service operated by Gibraltar Bus Company.

The same two operators continue to serve residents of Gibraltar. Their fleet lists are below.

Fleet Summaries

Gibraltar Bus Company – believed correct to 15 January 2020. 

G9500-19D MAN Lion’s City Midi/CaetanoBus B25D/B26D
G4735-7E Ford Transit/Ford M10L
G4738-40E Ford Transit/Ford M15
G96381 Toyota Coaster M16
G8364A Toyota Hiace staff bus
G1168B Toyota Hilux staff vehicle
G2481C Toyota Hiace staff bus

I’ve made three changes to this fleet summary since that I last posted during April 2018. First is the inclusion of the ‘un-identified Ford Transit’ which was in fact G4735E, so there is now a trio of ten-seaters; G4735E was noted in use on Service 7 on 15 January. This trio features a tail ramp and so are recorded as M10L. Second is the removal of the ‘L’ from the larger Ford Transits, G4738-40E, none of which has any wheelchair accessible area and so should be recorded as M15. Third is the inclusion of an additional crew vehicle in the form of G8364A, which is in house red livery and may have been with GBC since new though I saw no sign of it during my last visit. I noted all MAN Lion’s Citys except G9505/7D, though was informed that one is undergoing its MOT inspection and the other requires a new windscreen. I also didn’t see G4736/7E during my stay, nor did I catch sight of Toyota Hilux G1168B. All other vehicles in the fleet summary were noted.

Gibraltar Bus Company has a large number of ancillary vehicles. G2481C is a Toyota Hiace and is seen in the Market Place while being used as a staff shuttle bus. 

To expand on an observation I made about the seating layout in G9512D during my last visit, which saw the first set of double seats to the rear of the centre doors on either side of the aisle face backwards, I can now confirm this layout is applied to G9510-2D inclusive and their total seating capacity is reduced to B25D. The entire 20-strong batch of MANs came fitted with driver assault screens, but have been removed from all save the final three numerically: G9517-9D, two of which are generally used on the ‘night bus’ service N8 on Fridays and Saturdays.

Calypso Transport Ltd – believed correct to 20 January 2020. 

G59618 Leyland Atlantean/Willowbrook
G77960 Leyland B45 (Olympian)/ECW
G8991-4C MAN Lion’s City Urban
G4710D MAN Lion’s City
G5146/7D MAN Lion’s City T
G8750-2D MAN Lion’s City**
G7301-5E Volvo B9TL/Unvi Urbus 2.5DD H53/18D
G8169/74/6/8/80-3A TransBus Dart/Caetano NimBus B27F

** - G8750D wears an all-over livery for MoneyCorp bank.

 The only alteration to Calypso’s fleet summary since that I posted in April 2018 is that G6995B, a MAN SD202/Waggon Union, that was withdrawn is no longer on site. I’ve added the seating capcities for the ex-Alsa Madrid Sightseeing buses, G7301-5E. I noted all vehicles with the exception of G8992C, though this appeared to be over a pit with an industrial-strength curtain pulled across behind it so I couldn’t confirm the registration. Of note is that the heritage vehicles (G59681/77960) looked to be de-licensed for the winter. During my last visit the Atlantean looked as though it had been dumped in the corner of the yard and forgotten about, while the Olympian was notable by its absence. It was good to see both in situ, if not in operation. The remaining Darts were all noted in service, which was very pleasing to see.

The Frontier bus stop is the most northern in Gibraltar and is located opposite the airport. From here Calypso Transport's two services commence. G7304E is one of five Volvo B9TL/Unvi convertible open-top double-deckers, purchased from Alsa's Madrid Sightseeing operation in the Spanish capital.

New Depot 

The first notable change is that Gibraltar Bus Company (GBC) has moved out of its depot on Winston Churchill Avenue. The company’s base is now located at the Old Dockyard, along Queensway Road, off the beaten track to some extent. This took place on 29 July 2018, yet the company’s website continues to advertise its old address. The former depot is a building site with new housing well on the way to being completed. This has meant that on the majority of occasions service 2 driver changeovers now take place at Trafalgar Cemetery (inbound). Driver changes continue to occur in the Market Place for other services and on 14 January Toyota Hiace G8364A was noted there. The new depot can be partially seen from the Jumpers Building bus stop, looking down (west) onto the road below. I noted an unidentified Ford Transit and Toyota Coaster (presumably G96381) there.

Hoppa or Hopper? 

Both GBC and Calypso Transport Ltd (CTL) continue to offer day tickets. Both continue to be pronounced ‘hopper’ though GBC’s is advertised as a Hoppa costing £2.50 and Calypso’s is a Hopper costing a ‘whopper’ at £6.00. This fare has increased more than 100% since I last visited, though with Calypso also offering a day return at £2.20 I did wonder why anyone would purchase a Hopper (other than those like me who wanted to get some Dart mileage under their belt). A small footnote to CTL’s fares chart – displayed internally and externally throughout the fleet – cited why: that the £6.00 Hopper is additionally valid on ‘all Gibraltar’s buses’ – making sure not to mention GBC by name, though this is what it means.

Red Sands Road is the location of this shot, at the foot of its steep descent into Rosia. GBC's G9502D is seen approaching, weaving betwixt car and concrete wall on its hourly frequency from Both Worlds to Rosia Bay.

Frustratingly, the manner this ticket is administered means that it is only purchasable on board CTL vehicles, geared to the presumption that most passengers would purchase it at the Frontier/Airport. As I did on 15 January, there’s nothing to stop you purchasing it from a CTL bus in the Market Place and then getting off immediately. I understand that a negotiated percentage of the CTL Hopper is paid to GBC as revenue foregone. Though I would add that a GBC Hoppa at £2.50 plus a CTL Day Return at £2.20 is still cheaper than an all-encompassing Calypso Hopper; so unless you plan on more than two trips with Calypso, the above two-ticket option remains better value.

Exact Change 

As I mused during April 2018, the variations of coinage and currency bus drivers in Gibraltar receive is astounding. Both GBC and CTL accept the Gibraltar Pound, which is accepted on a like-for-like basis with Sterling, which is also accepted in full. This means that already there are two versions of all coinage and notes in circulation. Both operators also promote their fares in Euros; therefore all denominations of the Euro are accepted. Driver cash trays must be enormous. Simplification here must surely be the way forward though as yet GBC’s Wayfarer TGX ticket machines do not accept contactless payments, while CTL has invested in new Wayfarer machines that do. In fact, CTL now offers multi-trip tickets for holders of its contactless cards. The best value equates to 85p per trip for a 40-trip ticket (£34). Annoyingly, CTL doesn’t offer an unlimited travel package. And for new cards their depot office, from where these can be acquired, is only open on Wednesdays.

I was stood at North Gorge waiting for a Service 2 bus to arrive. Seen approaching is GBC's G9509D. If you look closely between the roof of the bus and the foot of the bubbling clouds you can see the mountains of Morocco, Africa.

With the various coinage accepted, GBC has attempted to simplify things a little by now asking for ‘exact fare only’ on all its buses. Drivers appear to carry the same cash tin as before and I’m sure if a driver had sufficient change he/she would offer change to a passenger, but with the likely advent of contactless payments and the company’s fares ending in either 00 or 50, following the likes of Lothian, Travel West Midlands, Nottingham City Transport and First Bristol is a decision they chose to make towards the end of 2019. Additionally, those making use of GBC services are entitled to travel for free – around 80% of passengers do not pay. Free travel is paid for by HM Government of Gibraltar and those qualifying include residents, members of the British Armed Forces and those seeking employment (which controversially includes certain Spanish residents).

Publicity 

My main gripe about travelling by bus in Gibraltar was corrected last spring when a new identity for the city’s bus network was introduced and along with it came brand new bus stop poles, flags and at-stop information. All bus stops in Gibraltar now have London-style flags on which states the specific name of that stop and on tiles beneath are route numbers of services that call there, along with their ultimate destination. Care has been taken to ensure the bus stop name is the same as that referenced in the timetables. This is long overdue and ensures tourists can know the stop name they want and can count down to it using preceding stops as reference points.

I woke relatively early on the day of my departure and headed out to capture some more interesting shots before things got too busy. Seen here negotiating Southport Gates is GBC's G9509D, heading back into town from Europa Point on 15 January 2020.

Immaculately clean, glazed bus shelters can be found at around 90% of bus stops. Inside each is an enormous version of the Gibraltar Bus Map, as well as timetable information for those specific services calling rather than a list of all routes as was the case. Timetables in Gibraltar continue to amuse with there being just one timing point per route – the first one. Thereafter, as my Mum would say, ‘it takes as long as it takes’ to reach the terminus and all points in between. ‘We’ll get there when we get there’. Though the intention is clear - the road network can be very unpredictable, especially if the Spanish are undertaking lengthy border checks on Friday afternoon, or a succession of planes land, or both!

Calypso Website

It came as something of a shock to me to see that CTL now has its own website, located at www.citybus.gi and it looks pretty good! Care has been taken to offer more information along each of their commercial routes (5 & 10) and a bus tracker, similar to that offered by GBC, is in the pipeline. The website’s home page cleverly offers ‘live’ departures from the Frontier/Airport, which actually aren’t live (yet) but timetabled. Either way, and with masses of stand time there, it would take quite a lot to hinder timetabled departure times (other than a plane landing). CTL’s website also heavily promotes its various ticket types and specifically its Smart Card option, using the company’s contactless ticket machines. A News page details various positive news stories (generally revealing winners of competitions) and also photos of recent visits from China and Hong Kong bus enthusiasts, keen to catch up with the company’s vintage Leyland ‘deckers. Surprisingly, photos of CTL’s staff parties are also shared on there, probably with a view to showing the local, caring side of the company. It’s something larger, more PR-savvy operators here would wince at, though.

G8752D spent the first half of its life painted yellow and operating in Berlin before being acquired by Calypso Transport some seven years ago. It's a full length MAN Lion's City and is loading at the Morrison's bus stop en route to Boyd Street - which is in itself something of an oddity as this terminal location is actually located on the adjacent Trafalgar Road.

But the main advantage of CTL’s website is that it now offers a channel for people to contact the company. Hitherto the operation was something of an enigma: no legal lettering on its vehicles (it isn’t required in Gibraltar), no contact details (either phone or address) within its buses or on its publicity leaflet. Now the website has changed all this and it can only be for the better.

Bus Tracker Live

One significant improvement for those with mobile internet access is the Bus Tracker Live mobile application, which is best accessed via GBC’s website or by downloading the ‘GibAPP’ to your mobile device. It enables the user to track in real time the location of buses on each GBC route. This is shown on the schematic map for that service rather than an overlay on Google Maps, for example. Simplicity is good here as the road network in Gibraltar is hardly simplistic and plotting the actual route taken of some services would make tracking the buses a little more complex than needs be. Although some drilling down is possible, this, sadly, only affords the user details to the second of the location where each bus was last seen, not registration of the bus in use.

Both operators' fleets are very well turned out, which is testament to the skill of their drivers, having to negotiate Gibraltar's historic streets (and more modern speed humps). Perhaps the tightest turn other than in Upper Town is depicted here, into Governor's Lane. GBC's G9508D is seen making the turn heading to the Market Place.

Details are also reported on the number of vehicles used on a service. Therefore calculating GBC’s peak vehicle requirement (PVR) is now relatively easy. CTL services are not currently shown though the company’s website implies their own tracker app is ready to be launched.

School Services

While trying to tick off all vehicles in both operators’ fleets, I was growing a little concerned that I’d not see all of them as some were clearly out of use for more than one day. Fortuitously, GBC operates two school services in the form of services S2 and S8. Both were noted on 14 January using two vehicles that had hitherto eluded me. Service S2 only began operation on 6 January and commences at Eliott’s Battery then inbound via service 2 to Trafalgar Cemetery then via Queensway and Harbour Estate to Waterport, which is where I saw it awaiting schoolchildren for its afternoon return. Service S8 operates from Catalan Bay on the East Side to Notre Dame First School on Winston Churchill Avenue following the sudden closure of a school after a large rock damaged its roof and students were hurriedly found a new educational establishment. In both cases, services S2 & S8 can only be used by schoolchildren and convey a bus inspector for supervision purposes. I then also spotted a MAN heading empty to the depot on the morning of 15 January displaying service S3 so it is likely there are three dedicated school services operated by GBC.

The Market Place is effectively the town centre bus station, yet only two services commence here and are depicted above: Service 1 (to Upper Town) is operated by Ford Tranits owing to the topography of the route and Service 2 (to Europa Point). G4240E is seen on the left and G9509D on the right. The other stands are used by through services 4 (Rosia/Both Worlds), 5 (Reclamation Road/Frontier), 8 (Both Worlds/Reclamation Road) and 9 (EuroTowers/Rosia). Things can get very congested at times as there are no intermediate timing points for through services.

Dennis Darts

Although badged Dennis, the Darts that have been associated with Gibraltar since 2004 were actually built by TransBus International, following the collapse of Dennis. But hang the technicalities of history, the term Dennis Dart is far easier on the tongue and enthusiasts know immediately what one is. Just eight of the original batch remain, all bar four were acquired by CTL direct from GBC for just over £1,000 each, which caused local controversy at the time. The four not purchased were split into two pairs of two; the first pair were effectively trashed in training exercises by Gibraltar’s emergency services; the remaining two were used as driver training vehicles for HM Government and were seen parked adjacent to CTL’s depot on my last visit. They’ve both now met their maker. CTL cannibalised as few of those it purchased as it could, enabling eight to be fully operational with this commercial operator and they were all noted in service during my three-day stay.

Travelling across a live runway aboard a Dennis Dart with operational climate control is something that can only ever be said of life in Gibraltar. I am aboard G8181A, badged a Dennis, though the order was fulfilled by TransBus International. The western half of Gibraltar's runway can be seen.

Unlike the quieter, more comfortable MAN Lion’s City Midis that replaced them at GBC, the Darts do sound rather rough inside and most – though not all – suffer from that bad vibration at tick-over. The air conditioning was working phenomenally well on G8181A when I travelled on it – far better than it ever did with GBC in the years I’ve been travelling. Generally the Darts are used on service 10 to Boyd Street, though do stray onto the shorter, more frequent service 5. While I’d not considered it a limitation, it soon became clear how much one door affects dwell times on the Darts compared with GBC’s MANs. Yes, the Darts seat more but passengers do have further to walk to leave the bus.

Having undertaken 28 individual bus journeys in three days, the majority aboard GBC’s MANs (I have no idea when I’ll be back this year so needed to tick as many off as I could during this visit), I can now see why TfL’s London Buses are so keen to maintain a centre door. It was also something, of course, that my beloved Grimsby-Cleethorpes Transport believed in until they purchased four Leyland Olympians in 1983 and two arrived with a front door only.

Never mind Fifty Shades of Grey, bus operation in Gibraltar are now, sadly, One Shade of Red. The vibrant blue livery - the initial colour of GBC - was still visible long after the Darts that wore it either passed to Calypso Transport in 2015 or met their maker, as two were used as driver-training vehicles. Two were still in existence during April 2018, though they've not met with the cutter's torch. In their place is this longer MAN Lion's City, G2432F, which is directly owned by HM Government of Gibraltar and based at GBC's depot. It's seen here opposite St. Bernard's Hospital.

Summary

As ever the time flew by while I was in Gibraltar. On this occasion I was devoid of my family so I didn’t have the burden this can have on getting some decent mileage under my belt. And, of course, it’s not all about the mileage – I found some decent vantage points for photography and caught up with some friends. With Brexit on the horizon and the uncertainty this has on Gibraltar, whose location is intrinsically linked with the EU more than the rest of the UK, Gibraltarians are doing as they always have and are taking it in their stride. The bus network has remained steady and constant (and I forgot to mention earlier that an enhanced timetable has been introduced to service 7, seeing later afternoon/early evening journeys) and it is very well patronised. In many respects, the increase in usage during the warmer months only serves to show how each route requires higher frequencies to cater for demand, but with GBC requiring at least 17 of its 20 MANs on a daily basis during the school term, there’s very little scope for enhancement and any additional investment has to meet HM Government of Gibraltar’s stringent sustainability criteria. CTL has quite a few spare buses during the winter months, I wonder if they’d lend GBC some Darts? Now there’s a thought.

Travelling to Gibraltar from the UK is only ever part of the transport experience. To read my blog detailing travel to/from Lincolnshire, please click here.

CORONAVIRUS: Very similar to the UK, HM Government of Gibraltar instigated a 'lockdown' from the end of March. Both GBC and Calypso services were effectively suspended until 1 June when they resumed. During the suspension, a skeleton service was operated exclusively for employees of Gibraltar Health Authority. Now, travel by bus is subject to social distancing and passengers are required to wear a face covering and use the on-board hand sanitiser.

18 April 2020

Coronavirus Diary Number 1

Monday 23 March

The PM 'instructed' the British public to stay at home today and while I drove home from work there did feel an eerie silence on the roads. This does potentially spell disaster for traditional family-run coach operators, though, whose business model relies heavily on day trips and holidays. The schools closing to all but children of key workers last Friday was already a possible nail in their coffin. Today also marked the introduction of reduced timetables for local bus services and national rail services. All industries are struggling to maintain staff numbers at the required level to run advertised timetables and so with drops in usage of around 70% it makes eminent sense to significantly cut services so that those offered can be relied upon. With a so-called 'Lockdown' now imposed, I did consider just how further usage could drop and whether further reductions in service are now likely.

Wednesday 1 April

Today starts the first of fourteen days where my family and I need to self-isolate owing to my daughter registering a body temperature in excess of 37.8C. She was ill when I collected her from school yesterday and the last thing I want to do is send her back where she could potentially infect children of other key workers. I've woken up today feeling rather hot and bothered and also have a body temperature in excess of 37.8C. Neither of us has a persistent, dry cough (yet?) so we shall see how things progress over the following days. The need to immediately self-isolate if anyone in your household displays Coronavirus symptoms has been a requirement long before the 'Lockdown' and is the main reason why transport operators have been struggling to maintain their normal service levels. I've been told that Network Rail in particular is struggling to maintain service levels in its signal boxes with Doncaster Power Signal Box particularly affected. No signallers = no trains; it's that simple.

Friday 3 April

I had considered my family's self-isolation at precisely the time I needed to put the finishing touches to the forthcoming edition of the LEYTR a positive to come out of an otherwise disruptive situation, but I feel particularly ill and so unfortunately the LEYTR is on the back-burner. I continue to suspect that neither me nor my daughter have Coronavirus but with the potential for larger numbers in society to display mild or no symptoms, who really knows, until a reliable antibody test is mass produced? All around me, though, bus and coach operators are closing their doors. National Express and Megabus have ceased all operations and Hull Trains has announced it will stop running. A global pandemic shows how little protection an open access train operator has compared to their franchised equivalents, that have effectively been underwritten by the DfT. Many local coach operators have attempted to maintain school transport for the very few children that now require them, but I've now noticed virtually all of them withdrawing these offerings. Brylaine Travel has suspended all services on Saturdays, too and rather impressively CallConnect is offering its demand-responsive services free of use to prevent the use of cash.

Tuesday 7 April

Both my daughter and I feel better today and fortuitously my son has not been unwell. Had he been a few years older my convalescence could have been improved by him making me unlimited cups of tea. I've attempted some work on the forthcoming LEYTR and have decided not to include a photo feature in it as offerings from our varied membership base have been low on the ground as they rightly heed government advice to avoid all but essential journeys. It would certainly be irresponsible to make specific journeys to capture photos of local transport and I've seen people rightly criticised for doing something similar when positing images online. The suspension of the photo feature does mean that I can include an additional four pages of text and has fortuitously enabled me to clear some of my backlog. The partner of a regular contributor was hospitalised with Coronavirus over the weekend and is home now. He also has contracted the virus too but to a lesser extent. He detailed their long road to recovery - potentially taking months, rather than weeks. Today also marks the halfway point of my self-isolation.

Friday 10 April - Good Friday

I'm almost ready to go with the LEYTR though I woke in the night in a cold sweat as I'd not considered Coronavirus's effect on the print industry. Would our printer even be trading at the minute? I fired off an email to them and even offered a solution to the collection of the magazines as I doubt our usual process of collecting them in person would be considered an essential journey. What concerned me the most was the cessation of printed magazines by two bus/coach titles - RouteOne and CBW. Both have an online presence and both promised to resume their printed weekly offerings once they were able to do so. I'm firmly in the 'print is best' camp. I'm sure there is a place in society for 'e-subscriptions' for people to view on an electronic device only, though they're not for me, not at all.

Sunday 12 April - Easter Sunday

I find myself at the out-of-hours GP unit at Grantham Hospital today, following a very rough night with my daughter who has developed a large lump on the side of her neck and was being sick moments after consuming anything - even squash. Our trip out of the house did cut short our self-isolation, though NHS 111 said this was more important. Of course on most Sundays it is perfectly possible to drive from Bourne to Grantham without seeing any public transport at all (provided you don't catch sight of the hourly Delaine service to Peterborough or see from afar a train powering along the ECML in the Corby Glen area). Today was no different. My daughter was diagnosed as having tonsillitis and it was the doctor's view that the large lump on the side of her neck was a cluster of glands that had swollen as a consequence. Grantham Hospital was a fortress and my daughter and I were required to don face masks and gloves before being allowed in. The set-up within the unit was very professional and the nurse manning the desk seemed very capable. To my surprise, we were the only ones there - an up side to Coronavirus being that fewer people are venturing out of their homes and so they are injuring themselves less. The nearest pharmacy to dispense the antibiotics she was prescribed was in Sleaford. We saw an EMR Class 156 departing Sleaford station bound for Skegness and it looked as though no-one other than the train crew was on board.

Tuesday 14 April 

Our final day of self-isolation, which is marred with my daughter's (non-Coronavirus) ill health. Positive news came in an email from the printer we use to produce the LEYTR, which said they continued to trade albeit with reduced staff. I was able to email the finalised version and they were willing to deliver the completed magazines to a mutual location so that they can be distributed. The edition has a good balance of bus/train news/articles and covers both sides of the Humber in equal measure - something I always strive to do. Strangely, I'm looking forward to visiting the supermarkets tomorrow, even though I've learned that since my self-isolation various queuing systems have been introduced to prevent too much social contact. 

Wednesday 15 April

Self-isolation is over! My daughter is still ill. There's been no improvement so I called our local GP who is changing her antibiotics. Rather surprisingly, he didn't want to see her at the practice. It is understandable that practices take steps to protect GPs and others who work there, but my daughter now has no temperature and no persistent dry cough and had been seen by a GP three days ago. It was because she'd been seen that he felt there was no pressing need to see her again. I did muse on how many sick patients a typical GP now comes into contact with at their practice on a daily basis compared with how many passengers a typical transport key worker would see. I was able to go shopping for the first time in ages and headed to Spalding on a route that crosses the former Spalding & Bourne Railway (opened 1866) on a couple of locations - most notably at the former Counter Drain station, serving the hamlet of Tongue End around a mile down the road. The station closed in 1959 and other than a house that looks very railwayesque, the only items that show that a railway line once crossed the road here is a small bridge across a dyke and a solitary white railway gate.

Friday 17 April

The LEYTR magazines have been produced in record time (another unintended consequence of Coronavirus?) and will be posted out on Monday. Their production is a week behind what would be normal, though sadly these are not normal times. My daughter's new antibiotics seem to have done the trick as she's almost back to her normal self and doesn't spend the days laid on the sofa with her quilt, drifting to sleep on and off. Further service reductions have been introduced by the two major operators in the LEYTR area - Stagecoach and East Yorkshire - to reflect the continued drop in use. It's also worth noting the closure of Gainsborough depot by Stagecoach and all East Yorkshire depots bar Hull and Scarborough. So far as Gainsborough is concerned, this has made for interesting photos uploaded, specifically of a Humber FastCat-liveried MAN working town service 2. It's interesting to note that all recent photo uploads to social media come with a disclaimer that the image was taken 'while making an essential journey to the shops' or something similar. Those driving the buses or working the trains are offering unrivalled photos at present, too, and it's great to see these images being shared.

Saturday 18 April

Yesterday I downloaded an app to my iPhone called Photomyne, which enables me to photograph my 6x4 glossy GCT photo collection and for these to be 'converted' seamlessly into digital files that I can share. I've seen others upload images of times past to social media in a bid to maintain morale during these unprecedented times, and since my GCT photo archive from the late 1980s contains images mostly taken by myself and never shared, I hope to offer many never-before-seen images. I uploaded three to the Grimsby Cleethorpes Transport (pre-Stagecoach) Facebook group (one is not my copyright). I've also been through and photographed some more recent RoadCar photos (pre-Stagecoach - just) that I've begun sharing to the Lincolnshire Road Car Facebook group (not to be confused with the Lincolnshire Road Car Pre-Deregulation Facebook group). The Photomyne app is free to download but there's an annual fee of £29.99 or monthly fee of £8.99 to continue using it after a three-day 'free' trial; therefore I spent hours snapping my collection yesterday and have today gone into my iTunes account and cancelled the subscription that you have to set-up, so that no money is taken. That said, if you do have thousands of photos you want to seamlessly scan and store (possibly with a view to upload in due course), the £8.99 monthly fee seems to be a decent offer; however, you'll be given the impression that the annual £29.99 fee is the only one that is on offer - agree to it then go into your Subscriptions settings where you can change your subscription to the £8.99 monthly fee.


10 February 2020

Travel to & from Gibraltar

SUNDAY 12 JANUARY 2020

There are countless reasons why on my latest trip ‘home’ to Gibraltar I decided to spend the night before my flight in London. First, the need to wake at 2 a.m. and drive the nearly-200 miles to Gatwick Airport would be removed, since a more leisurely 4 a.m. alarm call would be required and a shorter hour-long journey aboard a Thameslink service from central London to the Airport would be all that was needed; and second, I’d also avoid the need to physically drive the long distance from home in Lincolnshire and pay for airport parking.

Requiring a room in central London on a Sunday evening – the day of the week that hoteliers typically find hardest to patronise – ensured I was offered a fantastic deal on a single room (£39). It came with breakfast but my early departure, sadly, meant I’d be unable to partake. All was set fair, then, for the first part of my journey.

Sadly I’d not taken into account the railway network. While planning the trip, I’d considered driving to Nottingham and travelling with EMR to London via the Midland Main Line, except that was closed between Wellingborough and Bedford, with replacement buses shuttling folk between the two localities. I’d end up travelling on a rammed two-coach, Norwich-bound Class 158 to Grantham and then catching a LNER service thenceforth. 

Yet problems existed here, too, with the ECML south of Peterborough closed. All services were diverting via Ely and Cambridge. This added an extra hour to the journey time but worse still was that LNER was not advertising it possible to make the journey from Peterborough to London King’s Cross with them. Instead, passengers were told via online journey planners and the Travel Centre to board either the hourly EMR Norwich service or CrossCountry’s hourly Stansted Airport train and change at Ely for Great Northern’s half-hourly offering to London, which would join the ECML at Hitchin.

As if to add insult to injury, a replacement bus service was also offered between Peterborough and Huntingdon and others were only standby to offer additional capacity to Ely should the station become overrun with ad hoc travellers bound for The Smoke. Admission enough that the broad plan of sending everyone via existing services to Ely was inadequate.

Using one of the real-time journey planners in ‘detailed’ mode, I noticed that LNER’s reduced service to/from London was also running via Ely and Cambridge and that its southbound services were in fact calling at Peterborough but as ‘set down only’, meaning they weren’t shown in journey planners nor were the station's information screens advertising this most obvious of ways to reach London.

Faced with the dog’s breakfast of alternatives, I decided to board a set down-only service at 1904. This was booked to use Platform 4 and upon my arrival there at 1845 I was a little surprised to see the locality bustling with activity. LNER staff appeared to have gained authorisation to board we 50-60 souls on this due service, thus sparing a coach driver the hassle and EMR/CrossCountry from leaving folk behind when their already busy trains were scheduled to leave.

The stealth 1904 departure duly arrived late (it caught up a late-running Grand Central train after Doncaster) but fortuitously was formed of two 5-car Azumas. Sadly, the leading unit (800206) was the wrong way round and so those wanting to make use of First Class were stood in the wrong place. The trailing unit (800209) was at least pointing in the right direction (First Class at the London end) though the first two coaches, of which First Class formed 75%, were ‘full and standing’, to quote railway parlance  After much squeezing past people and their belongings in the aisle, I found a seat in Standard in what I suppose was coach eight of 10.

Dealing with this kind of load would have been far easier had it been possible to walk through the full length of the train, though sadly LNER has succumbed to two different trains through which continuous passage is not possible. I understand that when this configuration is booked, a Senior Host is located in the front unit with Revenue Protection; the rear unit is home to the Train Manager.

As I sat in cramped conditions, with elbows of all who passed by inadvertently jabbing me in the shoulder, the trolley service being unable to pass through the coach due to the number of standees, the journey duration owing to a line blockade in the Holme area and the high number of people travelling on a reduced service – not helped by the part-closure of the MML, I did muse on the benefit of the alternative: having next to no sleep tonight before the 2 a.m. alarm call and the 200-mile drive to the airport. Yes I’d be rather fatigued, but at least I’d be in the comforting surroundings of my own home and car.

I stayed at The King’s Cross Hotel, located at 60 Argyle Street. It is a budget hotel and the room for one night’s stay cost £39. The hotel had a positivity rating of 75% and was rated two out of 3 possible stars. Its convenience was excellent and upon check-in the receptionist ‘upgraded’ me to a double room, rather than my booked single. The room itself was a little cramped, but the en suite was decent enough and there was a pack of complimentary biscuits, which is more than you get from some of the big name no-frills hoteliers.

With the short days, the extended journey time and the winter temperature, it felt a little later than it was after I’d dropped my things off in the room, so I headed back out for a wander.

MONDAY 20 JANUARY 2020

My 3.45 a.m. alarm call was sufficient to negate the need for my snooze alarm five minutes later and by 4.10 a.m. I had dropped my keys off at the 24-hour reception and headed to St. Pancras International station. Confusingly, the main entrance on Euston Road implied the station was closed. The obvious entrance had two large gates pulled across, though this was actually to signal that its subterranean Underground station was closed. I headed down Panrcas Road and sure enough the side entrance was open and the Eurostar check-in lounge was a throng of activity.

Ticket barriers were in operation at St. Pancras though the EMR-operated ticket office was closed. I’d been fortunate enough to purchase my ticket from Peterborough’s booking office the day before and knowing the ticket vending machines don’t sell the full range of available tickets, I did wonder what the situation was for someone requiring a ‘specialist’ ticket.

Platform A, two floors beneath the main concourse, was very quiet. The silence was broken by the mobile (‘dynamic’?) announcer doing an audio test on his hand-held microphone; yet he didn’t make use of it to announce the arrival of my train (700004), comprising eight very quiet coaches. The driver, for the Thameslink/Great Northern network is DOO (driver only operated), announced some dwell time here before we departed punctually at 4.32 a.m.

A very quiet St. Pancras Thameslink station at 4.30 am as 700004 arrives with a train from Bedford.

Simplicity. Or basic. The interior of the Thameslink/Great Northern Class 700 trains were 'designed by a man', as my mother would say, and are devoid of charging points and Wi-Fi. Seats are pretty uncomfortable, too. Clearly their design has been maximised for capacity, with longitudinal seating, though for longer journeys which many passengers make (Huntington-London, for example), this design is not practical.

We arrived punctually at Gatwick Airport an hour later and access to the airport is very straightforward since the railway station is adjacent to the South Terminal. My flight, EYZ8901, would be departing from the North Terminal, which required a trip aboard the ‘free transit’ autonomous people mover, which operates approximately every five minutes, linking both terminals.

This journey is the first time that I’ve not printed out my boarding pass; instead, and inspired by others on my previous trip, I checked in and downloaded my boarding pass through the easyJet app. I’d taken a screenshot of the pass in case there was an issue opening the app when needed, but the whole process was faultless. Give easyJet, Ryanair et al there due, they have significantly simplified the whole boarding process.

My rule of thumb for making lengthy journeys is that I allow myself to be fleeced once. On this trip this took take place in Departures when I shelled out £3.00 for a latte before heading to Gate 559 for boarding. The couple in front of me were attempting to take two bags each onto the plane, which was spotted and they were segregated before having to decide which bag they’d each like to have stowed in the luggage compartment for an additional fee. It demonstrates that no matter how simplistic budget airlines make their booking and boarding processes, there are some who will always be caught out.

The complimentary papers were most welcome though they extended to the FT, the i and Metro, the latter of course having no price tag. A selection of glossy magazines seemed to interest more people and I picked up a copy of the New Statesman for some in-flight reading.

Heading to the departure gate my plane could be seen being prepared for the flight to Gibraltar.

After I’d booked my flight and paid a little extra to choose my seat, I received an email from easyJet to say my booked plane type had changed, though my seat choice was still available and so they’d retained this for me. I now discovered what had happened: presumably due to lower demand than anticipated, my booked Airbus A320 had been downgraded to an A319, offering fewer seats and in theory fewer cabin crew, though there was a healthy five on board, all exceptionally attentive and fine ambassadors for their profession. It’s easy to see why other passenger transport sectors try to train their staff to emulate those working for the airlines.

Push back commenced at 7.04 a.m., delayed slightly as only one set of steps was available and we all boarded through the front door. The Airbus A319 has 31 rows, each comprising 6 seats lettered A to F. I had chosen seat 30F and the two next to me (30D & 30E) remained empty throughout, as did all seats in row 31 and two seats in row 29. I estimated the plane carried a maximum of 176 passengers. January is the quietest time for year for easyJet journeys to and from Gibraltar; the company doesn’t fly there on Wednesdays - the day I was to return - and the reason for my return flight being with BA.

Empty seats aboard an easyJet flight to Gibraltar are very uncommon, especially on the Gatwick route. January, though, is the quietest month it would seem.

We made good time and circled Gibraltar before landing so I was able to get some nice photos of The Rock from the air. I also captured one of the runway as the plane was lining up to land. It certainly looked rather short from a mile or so out! As I captioned it to my friends, it’s wet at both ends.

Gibraltar's runway can be seen in the distance. It looks alarmingly short and wet at both ends!

WEDNESDAY 15 JANUARY 2020

Three days and two nights later I prepared for home. There can be few places where it is possible to board a bus to the airport from the city centre at 4 p.m. and be the other side of airport security seventeen minutes later! This is what I managed to achieve on departure day. My Calypso Transport single-decker departed the Market Place at 4 p.m. and having checked in online with BA the day before, I headed straight for security and was airside by 4.17 p.m. Wonderful.

British icons, side by side. And the weather typically fined up as I was leaving.

My Airbus A320 touched down a little ahead of schedule and ten minutes later was joined by a similar Airbus product operated by easyJet, which was bound for Manchester. My BA flight is the daily departure headed for Heathrow and was due to depart at 5.20 p.m.; the easyJet service to Manchester was due out after ours at 5.35 p.m., yet due to the vagaries of Air Traffic Control systems, we would not be allocated a ‘slot’ until thirty minutes after our booked departure time. Of course, this didn’t affect the Mancunian flight to our right, which left before us. One of the crew tried to explain that the delay was due to our planned arrival time in Heathrow and that 30 minutes was a worst-case scenario, though in the end we departed 30 minutes late.

Some days even in January BA operates two flights per day from Gibraltar to Heathrow. Leather seating is used as standard in BA's planes to/from Gibraltar and I found myself fortunate to be sat by some empty seats for my return trip, too.

The previous two nights I’d recorded this plane’s departure and it never left punctually; though today’s was the latest by far. Once airborne the steward working the first class section towards the front drew the curtain. This always makes me giggle. I suppose I can see why there is a need to do it, but seeing it in full flow makes me roll my eyes. 

It soon became dark as we headed north over Spain. Similar to my outward flight, I was fortunate in having no-one booked to sit next to me. When I checked-in I was afforded seat 18A for ‘free’ though the rear third of the plane on both sides seemed unreserved and BA cheerily offered me any of these seats for £17. I’m glad I didn’t take up their offer!

I do enjoy travelling with BA (when their flights are competitively priced). There is a certain ambiance that the other airlines can’t quite achieve and the stewards are impeccably turned out. The safety announcement was pre-recorded and involved a number of A-list celebrities being rather humerous in their delivery of what is otherwise mundane material. It looked as though it was done in partnership with a charity and Comic Relief for any unwanted currency. The wonderful thing about visiting Gibraltar is that you never have any unwanted currency as you avoid the need to visit a bureau de change!


We arrived at Heathrow just five minutes behind schedule, which prompted a suspicion I had that our 5.25 p.m. departure from Gibraltar was always in the balance as generous flight time had been afforded us in much the same way as railway schedules afford train operators padding between penultimate and final stations. Peterborough to London King’s Cross is reached in just over 50 minutes for LNER non-stop services, whereas northbound the journey generally takes just 45 minutes.

I then made the long walk to the station where I boarded the Heathrow Express to London Paddington. I’d never travelled on the HEX before and purchased my ticket from a roving salesperson. The ticket offices were closed. Access to the platform is via a choice of lifts. TfL Rail shares the platform with HEX and trains arrive in between one another. Regular announcements are made to inform passengers that tickets are not interchangeable. What wasn’t announced was that my train would be shortformed (just one unit - 332010) so my fellow passengers and I had to walk a fair way to board as HEX drivers are instructed to stop at the end of the platform regardless of how long their train is. 

332010 is seen at Heathrow Terminal 3 station, bound for Paddington.

I did smile to myself at the constant manual announcements made by ‘dynamic’ assistants – most were reasonably pointless – yet when details could have been made to aid the boarding process and reduce excess dwell time, it was overlooked. The journey was otherwise straightforward enough and we reached Paddington punctually. Significant information was given on board to the reviewed boarding process in the Capital, now that HEX is afforded just one platform and boarding is required to be rather swift, with passengers aided by platform assistants (both GWR and HEX from my observations).


After brief pit stop I caught a bus to King’s Cross in the form of Stagecoach London’s 12342 (SN64 OGR), an ADL E40H/ADL Enviro400 Hybrid. The bus was punctual but my debit card didn’t activate the ticket machine as I boarded. The driver waved me on but I instinctively suggested to him that it hadn’t read my card. He begrudgingly looked at his machine while at the same time I noted the card reader display in more detail. It was showing ‘Not In Service’. The driver pressed a few buttons and gestured I try again. Success. It’s fortunate that I questioned his initial command as a Revenue Protection Officer board mid-journey and I had to tap her manual card reader to prove I’d touched in. The journey was otherwise eventful, though the engine cut-off didn’t happen once.

Once at King’s Cross by 9.10 p.m. I discovered I’d caught the tail end of earlier disruption. I could have caught the delayed 9 p.m. LNER to Newcastle, though details of its platform had just been made and there was something of a stampede. Instead the 2130 Leeds was boarding on Platform 7. Formed of two 5-car all-electric Class 801 Azumas (801208/13) I boarded the rear-most unit (801208) and had a very smooth and punctual run to Peterborugh, calling at Stevenage en route.

Fortunately the outward disruption due to planned engineering work at Holme was long forgotten and as I sipped my glass of white wine as we hurtled along the ECML at 125 mph I did muse very positively on my time away. Even the lengthy diversion via Cambridge on Sunday aboard a train I shouldn't have been able to catch was punctual into London. The Thameslink train to Gatwick ran to time, both flights arrived punctually at their destinations (though the BA flight did touch down five minutes late) and you're never waiting long for a bus in Gibraltar.