Wednesday, 10 July 2013
Door to Door: Llandudno to Wordsley - By Bus!
Phil steps outside his seafront hotel in Llandudno, walks around the corner to the bus stop and begins to find his way home to the Black Country - all the way by local bus!
Only the extremely enthusiastic or possibly insane (I fit both categories) would attempt to step outside their seafront hotel in Llandudno and make it home to Wordsley in the Black Country all the way by local bus services.
This isn’t, of course, a normal journey to make, but in many ways the individual parts of the journey are very important – these are the trips that people make each day, and the ones that current non-users must be encouraged to try if bus use is to improve in numbers.
It’s an extremely quiet scene in Gloddaeth Street, Llandudno at 0650 on a Wednesday morning. I’m too early to even enjoy breakfast in my hotel as I wait for my first bus of the trip – the first journey of the day between Llandudno and Rhyl on Arriva’s service 12. Just me and 2 others are milling around the newsagents. I’m considering a Mars bar for breakfast but decide against such a sugary treat that early as I watch an ex-London double decker draw up to the stand.
First bus of the day!
According to the timetable it is 2 minutes late, but the timing point is from the West Shore – about 2 minutes away to my right. So I accept all is in order and purchase an Arriva Wales Day Ticket from the driver who is pleasant enough but probably coming to terms with his early start. He smiles politely and the 3 of us are eastbound out of the “Queen of Welsh Resorts”, through Colwyn Bay, hugging the Welsh coastline towards Rhyl.
It’s a fine morning in North Wales and the double decker provides some lovely views of the sea, interrupted by a mass boarding of schoolchildren, who are using some choice language on the way to their lessons, which slightly concerns me as I’m about to do a live interview on BBC Radio WM’s Breakfast Show regarding investment in buses in the West Midlands! Should I hop off and risk my carefully-planned itinerary, or stay on the top deck and risk thousands of West Midlands radio listeners choking over their cornflakes at the antics of Welsh schoolchildren?
In the end it doesn’t come to it as the radio producer rings me to say the interview has been put back 20 minutes. The kids shuffle off to school and we arrive spot on time into Rhyl bus station.
From here I’m off to Chester on the 11.
Rhyl to Chester - aboard the Cymru Coastliner
The departure stand shows information for services 11, 11A, 11F, 11G, 11M & 11X. All subtle variants of the 11 I guess, but it looks very untidy and off-putting to a first-time user.
The service is one of those anomalies that can’t show their final destination due to the length of it and the associated legalities. The 5 between Caernarfon and Llandudno cannot show “Llandudno” as its destination, rather “Bangor – connect to Llandudno”, or something like. It’s ridiculous and unhelpful for passengers. This one shows “Holywell”, approximately halfway along the route, with “connections to Chester”. It is, of course, the same bus that will do the entire journey.
The driver is in the cab 5 minutes ahead of departure time, but we still manage to leave 4 minutes late as people are buying weekly tickets. The driver is sealing them into little wallets and many notes and change are being handed back and forth.
Convenient? Maybe for the passenger buying the product, but for others like me it all looks incredibly cumbersome. Exact fare policies may be old-fashioned and customer unfriendly, but here’s the other side of the coin: you can board a bus full of people incredibly quickly if you aren’t dealing with change. This way of selling tickets is long, laborious and ultimately very time-consuming. It doesn’t help that the enquiry office in the bus station is now temporarily closed.
4 minutes late, we finally depart. The vehicle is a very well-appointed “Cymru Coastliner” with posh seats, extra legroom and free wi-fi, announced politely by the recorded voice. I complete a grilling from the BBC WM Breakfast Presenter, who seems determined to put a spoke in £81m of bus investment in the West Midlands, whilst my bus negotiates a holiday park.
The driver waits time at a couple of points en route, but still ends up arriving 3 minutes late into Chester. Halfway along the route at Holywell, a passenger had inevitably asked his fellow travellers if he had to change there – the dreaded destination display had struck again!
Chester may be a lovely place to be, but it’s pretty hopeless for interchanging between buses and trains.
The “Cymru Coastliner” had terminated at the “bus exchange” (posh term for bus station), which is nowhere near the railway station, where my next leg of the journey commences. The bus exchange, like so many other bus station facilities in towns and cities across the country, is shoved into an anonymous little corner of town. The signs to the railway station aren't great and I soon find myself in the main shopping street.
I recall from previous visits to Chester that a station link bus operates from a side street near the park & ride buses. I find the street, but with no sign of the station link bus, I decide to follow my instinct and head on foot to the railway station. The signs disappear and I’m faced with several lanes of traffic to negotiate as I spot an Arriva Sapphire bus heading for the station. I follow this down a road and eventually come across the railway station, but it’s taken me 25 minutes to walk –without clear signage – between bus exchange and railway station.
I've missed my intended connection, but the Arriva Sapphire service 1 to Wrexham is every 12 minutes, so it isn't long before I’m up and running again.
Chester-Wrexham: aboard the extremely posh "Sapphire"!
Another extremely well-appointed bus, it loops around Chester to serve the main street (Foregate St) I've just walked down (!) but with no service numbers on the shelters or bus stop flags, I have easily missed this more convenient stop. Maybe the Council and/or Arriva should consider providing this information, a la “Sapphire departs from here to Wrexham” or something similar. Maybe it would attract more users, but I suspect some Councillor might take umbridge at the prospect of enticing shoppers to spend their money elsewhere...
It’s another pleasant romp through the Cheshire countryside aboard a very posh bus, but we still manage to arrive 5 minutes down into Wrexham.
At Wrexham bus station, I’m due to use Arriva’s service 2 across the border into England and Oswestry. I can’t easily find a “where to board your bus” information point, and the computer screen on the enquiry office wall seems long dead. A large screen in the centre of the bus station does show upcoming timetabled departures though and I soon find my stand.
Wrexham has buses of many colours. There are numerous operators here, some seemingly very small operators, bringing in people from small surrounding villages. I peruse some of the frequencies – very small on some routes. Maybe the multi-colours of Wrexham are what the then Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley originally envisaged when he persuaded Prime Minister Thatcher to privatise and deregulate bus services back in the mid 80s.
This is where Arriva Buses Wales meets Arriva Midlands, and route 2 to Oswestry is operated by the Midlands version of aquamarine. Route 2 also has variants (2C, which is a short version of the 2) but I’m going full-length to the English market town.
The bus is a less-posh, more-standard single decker, but it also boasts free wi-fi. I have to register separately for this though, as it seems a different version to the Sapphire wi-fi. It works pretty well, as I flatten my smartphone battery looking at mundane status updates on Facebook and Twitter.
The sun is shining as we meander across into England. The bus pumps out heat from near my feet – another one the engineers have missed...
We arrive into Oswestry bus station more or less on time and I sprint across to an altogether more attractive Optare Versa single decker which is about to leave on service 70 to Shrewsbury. My attempts at a Linford Christie across the bus station were pretty much wasted, however. Our driver from the previous journey merely ambles across in my wake and jumps aboard, hitching a lift back to Oswestry garage, which this service passes.
Our route 70 departs on time and shortly arrives at the garage to drop off our earlier driver. In fact the bus pulls onto the forecourt and reverses into a space at the back end of the garage to allow a driver changeover. Fascinating for an enthusiast like me, but really necessary for the smooth, efficient operation of a bus service? We sit here for a few minutes whilst driver changeover formalities are carried out and another driver proceeds to rip off an advert flapping from the side of the bus. The locals on board seem unbothered. One is comparing pork chops with her friend’s butcher’s purchase.
An hour later and we’re into Shrewsbury. Town of half-timbered buildings, Gothic-like railway station and, well, pretty much underwhelming bus station.
The bus station is functional, if unspectacular. There’s much reversing without banksmen going on here, but all the bus drivers seem to know the drill. The newsagents contains a small enquiry desk, manned by one of those people you’d thought didn’t exist anymore – tonnes of local knowledge, backed up with timetables for local services all over the walls, as well as seemingly acting as a local travel agent for coach tours across Britain and Europe. I grab handfuls of timetables and finally succumb to the choccy bar I resisted at ten to seven this morning and head for Stand P for the Bridgnorth service – handily corrected graffiti-pen style by an astute member of staff no doubt on the information board.
Bus information - felt-tip pen-style in Shrewsbury...
I have 2 choices at Shrewsbury. Head towards Bridgnorth (where Hitler was rumoured to have wanted to make his British base) where I could link towards Stourbridge, or Telford, where the service again transforms itself into a bus to Wolverhampton – although for reasons described earlier doesn’t show itself as a Wolverhampton bus.
But there’s a problem. Neither bus has shown and traffic around the bus station has ground to a halt. A traffic accident just up the road has quickly created a congestion nightmare, with ambulances and police sirens filling the air. An Arriva man in tabard is perusing the scene, and, to his credit is informing not only his own drivers but those of other operators what is going on.
But with nearly an hour passed, and traffic slowly returning to normal, my schedule is in tatters. There is still no sign of either of my options, as I continue to tweet both Arriva and Shropshire Council. Neither can assist me with the location of my missing buses, and with the prospect of ongoing connections being lost, I decide to abandon the bus and let the train take the strain!
London Midland train to the rescue in Shrewsbury!
I handily have my London Midland pass on me so it’s a quick trip down to Wolverhampton from where I can pick up a bus home from there.
A National Express West Midlands 255 service takes me to within half a mile of my home, but not without me emailing Centro en route to report some missing information from the digital screens in Wolverhampton bus station.
End of the road! National Express West Midlands route 255 takes me home from Wolverhampton!
Eleven hours after leaving Llandudno I’m finally home, but what have I learnt from this snapshot of 6 bus journeys (and an unexpected rail one)?
Presentation of the vehicles themselves was very good. Arriva in particular have really upped their game in Wales, with both Sapphire and Cymru Coastliner.
Timekeeping maybe needs a closer eye. Several journeys seemed to run late for no particular reason.
Should more off-bus ticket selling be considered? My experience in Rhyl watching people watching buying weekly tickets from the driver was slow and frustrating. Imagine if it was raining?
Cannot anything be done with longer services unable to simply show their final destination because of “legislation”? It is an unnecessary complication.
There are some good things going on, but still “the little things” need considering in order to encourage non-users to try buses more often.