13 October 2021
14 August 2021
I last visited the Isle of Wight during a Railrover in 2005. It was a fleeting visit, involving a trip along the full length of the Island Line, from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin. There I walked to the town’s bus station and caught a bus direct to Yarmouth before heading to Lymington by boat and travelling aboard a 3-CIG (Class 421). I’ll be honest, my impression of the Island was nondescript – I wasn’t left with any lasting memory other than the 1938 Stock (Class 483) ex-London Underground trains that worked the Island Line being not at all comfortable or practical and I suspect those who had to rely on them for their daily commute would have much preferred a Pacer.
Sixteen years later I took advantage of the very low prices initially offered by the hospitality sector upon publication of the government’s ‘roadmap’ out of perpetual lockdown in February. Three nights overlooking the English Channel in a family room for £105 wasn’t to be sniffed at, and coupled with the planned introduction of newer stock to the Island Line, I could sample the new Vivarail Class 484 ex-District Line Tube trains at the same time.
Sadly the latter didn’t come to pass, as the line’s planned reopening at Easter was delayed until ‘later in the summer’ as the new ‘484s’ were having technical problems and Vivarail graciously admitted full responsibility for the delay while it ironed out the problems. Speculation continues to be made concerning what ‘later in the summer’ meant, and inferences have been drawn over the expiry date of the replacement bus timetable on the National Rail website; initially this showed 31 July 2021, but was amended to 31 August 2021, and as I write much discussion online suggests the Island Line will be up and running from 1 September. Yet speaking to a passenger at a bus stop on my second day on the Island, he told me a contact of his who is directly involved in resolving the technical problems believes trains won’t be running until ‘October at the earliest’ and assumed the replacement bus timetable expiry would simply be amended again.
From my observations of the replacement buses, journeys are provided by Xelabus and Portsmouth City Coaches, the latter using ex-Centrebus Scania ‘deckers – one not only still wears its former operator’s orange, white and purple livery, but still bears the Centrebus fleet name above the driver’s cab despite having been acquired in 2019. There are two replacement bus timetables – one is from Ryde Pier Head, the location at which the Fastcat from Portsmouth Harbour docks, to Ryde Esplanade, where the town’s bus station is situated and the other is from Ryde Esplanade to Shanklin, following the line of route taken by Island Line trains as much as possible (only Smallbrook Junction is omitted). In a number of cases the location of the replacement bus stop is more central to the towns and villages than the station (Brading, Sandown). Frustratingly, the timetable on the official South Western Railway website is wrong – it shows the off-season timetable, with an hourly frequency along the Ryde Esplanade–Shanklin route – when in reality since May there are two buses an hour, matching that of the trains (improving it even as the distribution of Island Line services is at 20/40-minute intervals, rather than evenly spaced 30/30 intervals). One other thing to note is that while a timetable does exist between Ryde Pier Head–Ryde Esplanade I never saw a bus travelling along the Pier; I did, however, see a procession of private hire taxis bearing Island Line A4 paper logos affixed to their passenger seat windows. It could be taxis on a demand-responsive basis provide the timetable here.
Last year’s holiday was to Edinburgh and it’s easy to forget just how well connected Lincolnshire is to the Scottish capital thanks to the ECML. Even with a change at Newark Northgate, the kids and I reached Edinburgh from Grantham in just over four hours. It would take almost 50% longer to reach Sandown. That said, the journey was simple enough: LNER Grantham–London King’s Cross, Undergroung to London Waterloo, SWR to Portsmouth & Southsea and Hovertravel to Ryde Hoverport. There is a half-hourly Hoverbus transfer, linking Portsmouth & Southsea station (and other central terminals) to the Southsea Hoverport, so actually reaching the Isle of Wight is relatively straightforward enough.
Stagecoach in Portsmouth provide this Enviro200 for use as the Hoverbus
Although having to book seats to travel with LNER is a pain (the train in front of ours was shown as having no seat reservations applied), we found our seats empty and upon sorting ourselves out were offered complimentary breakfast by the on-board hosts. We arrived in the Capital punctually and a nice touch by LNER appeared to be a member of staff stood by every door as we alighted. The Underground route to Waterloo was simple enough – we could change at Euston or Warren Street and I opted for the latter as the station is quieter. Our SWR ‘444’ to Portsmouth Harbour was shortformed of just 5 coaches, so things were a little cosy, but having boarded at the first stop we were able to be seated. The air-conditioning was working well and engineering work meant we omitted Woking. We almost missed the Hoverbus, however, as it appeared to leave two minutes early (ex-Portsmouth & Southsea station at xx12/xx42 past each hour) and it undeniably started to depart at xx10, but the driver – dressed in what would soon become apparent as Hovertravel uniform – graciously stopped and allowed us to board.
Southsea Hoverport is subsumed in a bustling seafront comprising traditional arcades and rides and my kids would have preferred to have caught a much later crossing, but laden with bags and a suitcase they were overruled and we showed our tickets to the Isle of Wight.
At this point I should point out that a return crossing (with the return portion valid anytime within 1 month of the outward crossing) costs £29 if booking from Hovertravel direct. The bus transfer – provided by Stagecoach in Portsmouth, using an ADL E200 in a special all-over livery – is £2.20, yet a Portsmouth & Southsea to Ryde St John’s Road return train ticket whose route is ‘via Hoverlink service’ is £26.50 and includes travel on the Hoverbus. The option to book to Ryde Esplanade is not possible, so I chose the next stop along the Island Line (St John’s Road). If you were to visit for just one day an even better option exists – buy from any Stagecoach in Portsmouth bus for unlimited travel thereon, plus a day return using the Hovertravel service and unlimited travel on all Southern Vectis buses on the Island for just £23.50. My version, however, required me to then purchase a single Ryde St John’s Road to Sandown and an equivalent in reverse on the day we left, for use on the much more direct replacement bus service.
I don’t recall ever travelling on a hovercraft before (maybe I did as a child) and as we left Southsea and hovered atop the Solent, I couldn’t help but think of the short-lived hovercraft service from Grimsby Docks to Hull in the late-1960s; trials took place from Cleethorpes beach, but the service was a flop owing to the strong currents in the Humber Estuary and persistent damage to the crafts. There appeared to be two vessels on hand for our journeys to/from the Isle of Wight – the Island Flyer and the Solent Flyer. Both our crossings saw us use the Island Flyer, which was immaculately clean inside and attentive crew ensured the boarding process was straightforward.
I showed my train tickets to the attendant at Southsea and she stamped them with a very large HOVERTRAVEL red stamp and we were directed to the departures area, from where it became immediately noticeably that a craft was incoming. It reminded me of the scene just over half way in the movie The Lost World (Jurassic Park) in which an Ingen ship containing a T-Rex was headed for the dock in San Diego, only for it to sail at full speed into the pontoon. I suppose the hovercraft did collide with land, in a control manner, but none of its crew had inexplicably been eaten by a dinosaur that was still contained within the ship’s hold. Our crossing wasn’t as smooth as it could have been and I suspect that sitting in the middle section of seats would make turbulence a little less obvious. I used an app on my phone to triangulate our position using GPS and thus calculate our speed – we were attaining 22mph for much of the trip.
Upon arrival at Ryde Hoverport, literally sandwiching the Island Line with the bus station, the lack of trains was evident as the railhead looked rusty. Crossing a footbridge was the obvious way to reach the bus station, from where the replacement bus departed. This would also have been required had our final leg been undertaken on the forthcoming ‘484s’. A lengthier route is possible for those unable to manage steps, using the small coach park.
It wasn’t immediately clear from where the replacement bus left, though I assumed it was the Xelabus-liveried Scania N94UD/East Lancs in the corner. A trip to the bus station enquiry office bore fruit as I was informed by the lady there that the Xelabus ‘decker was indeed the rail replacement service, and she also directed me to the enormous box of timetable booklets for the Southern Vectis operation during the summer period. This booklet was instrumental in planning our short break here and it is clear that Southern Vectis ‘gets it’, and is willing to reintroduce printed timetables en mass, despite the manner in which this has been treated during the pandemic.
Only the Centrebus fleet name from above the door had been removed (and not very well at that); the one above the driver's cab was still extant
A collection of drivers had gathered around the front of the Xelabus and we were directed on board. The bus left a couple of minutes late and operated via St John’s Road, the next stop along the Island Line, from where an old 1938 Stock train could be seen alongside a D-Stock (Class 484). Smallbrook Junction isn’t served by the replacement bus – a shame since this is a very convenient connection for the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. We alighted in Sandown some distance from the station: our driver confirmed this was the stop because reaching the station was too tight for a full-size bus. This did us a favour as we had less far to walk to the hotel.
All in all our entire journey took under 6 hours, undoubtedly aided by the very efficient connections at Portsmouth and Ryde; I was mindful that it wouldn’t have taken much to significantly extend the journey time.
The Needles Landmark Attraction has a bus turning circle that also acts as the terminus for Services 7 & 12, with the Needles Breezer and the Island Coaster passing through. Assistance is on hand in the form of staff employed by the attraction as traffic became hellishly bad
Returning some days later saw us board one of the ex-Centrebus Scania ‘deckers, operated by Portsmouth City Coaches, on the rail replacement bus service from Sandown Broadway to Ryde bus station. This bus was atrocious to travel in – there was no sponge in the seats, cloth directly covered plastic. I did muse just which was more uncomfortable, my 2005 journey aboard a 1938 Stock or this journey. I think it was a tie. We headed directly to the Hovercraft terminal and saw Solent Flyer depart seconds after Island Flyer arrived. Two departures per hour were timetabled, though no sooner had we arrived in the terminal than we were ushered to Island Flyer (having shown our tickets) as it was ready to depart. We left eight minutes after the previous departure, with 19 on board, and it became apparent that Hovertravel had effectively suspended its scheduled timetable and were running both craft to and fro in order to meet demand, which appeared to be from the mainland to the Island. Around five minutes out from Southsea, Solent Flyer could be seen headed back to the Island fully loaded and upon our arrival there were plenty waiting to board.
Leaving Southsea Hoverport, access to the Hoverbus service is located immediately outside. Departures claim to tie-in with hovercraft arrivals, but since craft were running as required this wasn’t strictly true. But having saw awaiting departure for just two minutes, the engine started and we were off towards Portsmouth City Centre. We could have left at The Hard Interchange, adjacent to Portsmouth Harbour station, as this was the first station on our next journey, but we stayed on to Portsmouth & Southsea, so we could undertake the full, circular route. Our SWR Class 444 to Waterloo was correctly formed of two units and the journey was straightforward and we arrived in London on time. Our Underground trip to King’s Cross was diverted via the Hermanos Columbian coffee shop in London Victoria, from where, rather than board another Tube, we caught a 390 bus bound for Archway, alighting outside St. Pancras. How long has it been since Service 73 was curtailed to terminate at Oxford Circus? We boarded a Lincoln-bound Azuma and the pre-booked seats system went as smooth as possible.
A number of Southern Vectis's vehicles are blue with Vectis Blue fleet names, that seem to suggest their use is more for the southern routes around the coast. This was out first bus of the holiday, to The Needles from Sandown
While staying on the Isle of Wight, we made a number of trips, visiting many locations. From a bus perspective we made use of the thrice-daily, closed-top Island Coaster service, some of whose bus stops displayed Island Breezer, implying that in times past this route was topless. The route links Ryde with Yarmouth in a clockwise fashion, calling at Sandown, Shanklin, Ventnor and The Needles and offered, as its page in Southern Vectis’s timetable booklet suggested, stunning views of the island coastline. Hills are aplenty, especially down to Shanklin seafront and seemingly from all directions into Ventnor.
The Needles Breezer at journey's end in Yarmouth
We caught the Needles Breezer from The Needles Landmark Visitor Centre up to the Needles Battery and it’s quite a journey. To my regret and eternal shame, this open-top route had never featured on my radar. From the Visitor Centre, the route uses a bus-only road and negotiates two hair-pin bends to reach the top of the outcrop, at which the new Battery is located and from where you can walk down to the iconic former Battery and see up close the multiple rocks jutting off the mainland into the sea. The Needles Breezer’s route starts in Yarmouth and undertakes a one-way route to the Needles Visitor Centre; having then completed the most interesting section, buses return to Yarmouth via a more linear route. Automated announcements are made on board. Three buses appeared to work the half-hourly service.
The other open-top route, the Downs Breezer, takes in a large circular route from Ryde to Sandown, heading anti-clockwise inland and across the Downs, offering spectacular views of the Island’s largest hills. Very comprehensive automated commentary is offered, and all manner of details of the Island’s history are given – some aspects are not for the faint-hearted. Unlike all the other routes we used, the Down’s Breezer has a serious problem with punctuality, seemingly always fifteen minutes later by Sandown. From here it heads north to Ryde via the coast, taking in the north west coastline.
Aboard the Downs Breezer heading from Sundown to Ryde
We used some standard routes, generally operated by ADL Enviro400s and Scania double-deckers, from Newport to Sandown (Service 8, whose next stop announcements stated a bus stop called Hairpin Bend (it was a rather tight corner!)), Yarmouth to Newport (Service 7) and Ryde to Newport via Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor (Service 3). The latter was of most interest as it appeared to be the most spectacular in terms of hills and bends. Heading north from Ventnor to Newport Service 3 takes in a number of hairpin bends on steep hills, one having a dip immediately before it, necessitating the driver to counter-intuitively reduce speed to prevent the bus grounding, then being left to floor it from an almost-standing start. The bus kicked down impressively, giving the impression it was offering all it could in first gear and we ascended the hill without issue.
One of the most frequent routes is Service 9, linking Ryde with Newport every 10 minutes
Meeting buses coming in the opposite direction is likely to cause problems, as standard routes operate every 30 minutes. From Newport do you find the most frequent services, to Cowes (Service 1) and Ryde (Service 9) running every 10 minutes.
There are a few, newer Enviro400MMCs in operation, this being allocated to what was one of my favourite inland routes, Service 3, seen at Ryde bus station
Body damage seemed minimal, which genuinely surprised me. I suppose you get used to the terrain and topography, but even so there is clearly an additional layer to skill required to undertake these routes on a daily basis.
Everything slows when a bus meets oncoming traffic, including this route that has a white line down the middle
The Southern Vectis timetable book offered full details of the network’s Rover tickets. There are two types – one excluding the Breezer open-toppers and one including them. I opted for a 48-hour ticket inclusive of the Breezers, and since my children are under 10, it was cheaper to buy theirs individually, rather than a Group ticket. £16 adult and £8 child for 48 hours’ travel on all Southern Vectis routes seemed decent value for money and the 48-hour period was specifically that; we bought ours on Monday at 0904 and ticket expiry stated Wednesday at 0903, technically allowing more than 48-hour use provided you boarded your final bus before the time was up. I purchased from the driver who dutifully laminated them each in a wallet. It is possible to purchase the full range of Southern Vectis tickets via the company’s mobile app.
01 August 2021
The following post was intended for publication in the latest magazine but was ousted due to a lack of space.
‘Planned’ is the operative word, as such trips cannot be made spontaneously – not any more. I fear this ‘new normal’ is here to stay. LNER introduced reservation-only travel early on, as part of the reduced Coronavirus timetable and seem very keen to maintain this prohibitive restriction. The NRM is urging people to book their visit using its website, and to choose a 30-minute arrival window. Entry to the NRM continues to be free and LNER was offering a good selection of Advance fares aboard its trains, with the cost fluctuating with popular journeys. Booking seats with LNER last summer was a farce; the allocated seats assumed all three in my party were strangers and had to be sat 2 meters apart; hence the kids and I were allocated three separate tables each in coach L in LNER’s Mk 4 stock when we travelled to Edinburgh. This seems to have now been overcome, with sensible allocations seeing us positioned round a table in each direction.
We booked on the 1219 York service from Grantham on Saturday 26 June. Our train was shown On Time until a pair of Colas Rail Class 37s top ‘n’ tailing a Network Rail train stopped at Platform 2 for a crew change (37057+37254). Entertainingly, the relief driver assumed the train would be routed via Platform 4, and so accordingly positioned himself there, only to get quite a shock when the train stopped on the Down Main! Aboard 801204 we departed 5 minutes late and I was heartened at how well the reservation system had worked. The electronic seat reservation indicators were blank and passengers were simply trusted to sit in their allotted seats – we had no need to ask people to move. As this train was a ‘York terminator’ it wasn’t as heavily loaded as a through service to Leeds or Edinburgh and we made good time, arriving York just two minutes down.
York station is littered with social distancing signage, as is the short walk to the NRM that is effectively next door. We were greeted by one of the Museum’s representatives who guided us in as we had arrived within our allotted window. The email confirmation I’d been sent comprised a QR code that was scanned by the person manning the ticket desk and we were admitted entry. Only now did it become clear that our three-hour stay before our booked train home would be rather difficult to fill. Many exhibitions were closed – some rather vaguely due to ‘Coronavirus’, others due to ‘additional storage’ or ‘staff availability’. All that was open were the two main halls. The Mallard Simulator and a couple of circuits aboard the miniature railway (the only exterior event in operation on a Saturday in June!) had to be pre-booked and were fully taken for the day. While the Mallard Simulator seemed very lightly patronised, the lady manning its desk said ‘fallow time’ was needed in between sessions.
But perhaps worst of all was the model railway exhibition – the highlight of my kids’ day (they vividly remembered it being the best thing here when we last visited two years ago). The advertised five different operational trains were not in evidence at all. The only movement that was seen in three hours was a Class 08 shunter that moved out from a tunnel for five feet, stopped and then reversed back into the darkness. With a brave face, I aimed to make the most of what was open to us and it was great to be reacquainted with some very significant and renowned trains – including GWR’s HST that was painted in the original ‘Flying Banana’ livery, despite it being forbidden to stand on any footplates or enter any coaches.
Fortuitously, however, while in the play area adjacent to the miniature railway, we saw that trains departed every ten minutes and that people were not arriving for their booked slot. We therefore chanced our arm and made representation to the two very well-spoken men who were providing the service and had something of a highlight when we were afforded a trip aboard the last departure of the day at 1540. There were Perspex shields between each of the five coaches and the two men were very visibly undertaking a thorough cleaning regime between trips. A figure-of-eight circuit is undertaken and the kids had a great time (as did I when I realised we’d sidestepped the £3-per-person fee).
Back at York station, I commented to my son that the blue façade of the Costa coffee outlet was unique in Britain (all others are red). He claimed one at Newark Northgate station was blue, but I dismissed this as he’s only seven and has never shown an interest in coffee. Yet while changing trains at Newark Northgate on our return journey (our 9-car Azuma (801220) working the 1635 London King’s Cross omitted Grantham so we left at Newark for the 1755 London train that started at Lincoln, formed of 800201) he took great delight in pointing out the… blue Costa coffee façade on Platform 1! This was probably the most memorable part of the day.
It was great to be out and about by train again, and the kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves (being, thankfully, far less aware of the state of play at the NRM that I was). LNER’s trains were punctual, clean and the seat reservation system worked well. People were travelling in quite considerable numbers, which was good to see. If anyone had concerns with hygiene aboard trains or within the NRM I can state categorically these areas are well in-hand. It’s just a shame that, when asked, my daughter’s favourite part of the day was the train ride home.
Until the remaining Coronavirus restrictions are lifted in full, and until those who’ve been double-vaccinated are no longer required to self-isolate if they catch a cold and therefore display one of the main Coronavirus symptoms, a trip to an establishment such as the NRM is likely to be marred with disappointment, either due to the possible over-zealous enforcement of guidelines or a lack of facilities due to too few staff being available.
14 August 2020
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
The same two operators continue to serve residents of Gibraltar. Their fleet lists are below.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.