Tuesday, 9 July 2013

More Welsh Ramblings...

Phil is off to his beloved North Wales again, and discovers trains with no legroom, buses with loads and a pony-tailed driver who hates his bus...

North Wales is a particularly favourite spot of mine. So with 4 days off work, I decided to go for a ride on the wonderful Welsh Highland Railway.
But part of the fun is the journey to and from Llandudno, where I decided to base myself for 2 nights. I could have a go on Arriva’s recently-introduced premium “Sapphire” service between Chester & Wrexham, as well as try a route I’d always fancied having a go on – GHA’s X50 link from Wrexham to Rhyl.
Having got myself from Stourbridge Junction to Smethwick Galton Bridge, it wasn’t long before my first delay was apparent. Earlier signalling delays around Wolverhampton had delayed my Arriva Trains Wales journey towards Chester. 8 minutes down wasn’t a particular problem for me though – I had more trouble squeezing my 6’7” frame into the Class 158 train! At least this is one of the recently refurbished ones though. The spruced-up carriage still has appalling legroom...
The train splits at Shrewsbury, meaning that all those heading into the Principality must be in the front 2 carriages – always a slightly nervy moment I think for travellers – how do you know without stepping out onto the platform where the front 2 carriages are? Or I guess you could walk as far as you can until you meet the driver...We arrive 5 minutes late.
From here I’m travelling on Arriva’s sparkling new “Sapphire” bus service to Wrexham. Route 1 leaves from outside the front of the railway station. Out comes the camera to capture the posh bus. Except it isn’t what it should be. It’s a posh bus, but it’s one of the “Cymru Coastliners”, which normally ply their trade between Chester and Rhyl. I decide to let it go, as there is a 12 minute frequency, and, like clockwork, the next 1 appears, and this time it’s a real Sapphire.
Incorrect Bus! 

Correct Bus! 

These are actually reconditioned vehicles, rather than brand new, but they may as well be new, as they've been completely gutted and put back together with luxurious interiors, including even posher leather seats than Leicester’s version of Sapphire, which I saw at last week’s launch in the East Midlands. There is 2+1 seating upstairs, plenty of legroom for big fellas like me, and free wi-fi, which worked mostly fine, give or take a few drop outs.
Posh leather seats on Sapphire...

I purchase a £6.50 Arriva North Wales day ticket (which will also get me from Rhyl to Llandudno later) and we’re soon off into the Cheshire countryside. Welsh and English announcements refer to the wi-fi and tell us where we’re stopping. It is a supremely comfortable ride. You can even charge your power-hungry smartphone up on the powerpoints by the side of your seat. The only thing that’s missing (as is on most other UK double-deckers) is upstairs windscreen wipers. The rain is falling and seeing where we’re going is difficult.
The front seats don’t have the powerpoints though, so I’ll take my chances with my phone battery in order to see such delightful village names as “Cuckoo’s Nest”. I swear the Welsh announcements are being made with a scouse accent...
It takes around 50 minutes to get to Wrexham, and we arrive a few minutes down. It’s raining and most of the population are huddled in McDonalds, emulating the Chancellor, munching on burgers.
I try the travel centre in the bus station, which oddly only has timetables for 2 services to hand. I ask the lady about the X50/X52 service, who tells me that the next departure is the 1325. “Most of them go through to Rhyl”, she advises, and the paper timetable appears to indicate this also.
On stand, the service is for Denbigh, with “connections” to Rhyl, but my branded X50/X52 (not clear which is the Rhyl one) arrives with driver who tells me that he is, in fact, only going to Denbigh. He’s pleasant enough though, informing me I can catch an Arriva bus from Denbigh to Rhyl, “or wait for one of ours – but it’ll be about half an hour later”. The ticket is £5.50.
The departure is a fully-loaded one and I’m forced to sit right at the rear of the single decker. The seats are so high up that all I can see is the passing pavement. It’s a pleasant run though (gazing out of the rear window instead) and myself and 1 remaining passenger are deposited at a roundabout in Denbigh.
The driver points to a stop on the other side of the roundabout and repeats his earlier words about Arriva’s service 51 in around 10 minutes or another 30 minutes for GHA’s – but at least I won’t have to pay again. I won’t have to pay again anyway, as my Arriva Day Ticket will get me onto their bus! And with that, a quick flick of the destination button. “Sorry, Not In Serivce” – and he’s gone!
It’s a quiet day in Denbigh. Council workers are tending to flowers on the traffic island. It’s a quaint scene.
Not so quaint is the bus shelter, which is a disgrace. The glass panels are frankly disgusting and the real-time information (which may or may not be “real-time”) is mostly intelligible due to the combined antics of the local vandals and lack of love from the Council. It does scroll the Traveline number though, and also suggests I text 84268 – without an accompanying code. Maybe my phone would explode with details of every stop departure in the UK if I did...
Denbigh "Real-time" - or lack of!

The appalling bus shelter in Denbigh!

Arriva’s 51 to Rhyl arrives dead on time. No sooner has the pony-tailed driver grunted his approval at my ticket, he’s out of the cab on a mission to resolve the buzzing sound, emanating from the rear emergency exit. A hefty slam ensues, but one stop later the door is rebelling again.
“I hate this bus”, announces the driver to the small gaggle of passengers, who may require a tad more customer service training, should Sapphire ever come to Denbigh.
We eventually reach Rhyl, with no more buzzing. My 12 to Llandudno at least says Llandudno these days on the real-time information (I had complained that it merely read “Clifton Road” last year), but the display is showing some confusing info. There’s a bus due at 1548 (no sign), 2 minutes later at 1550, then nothing until 1624. Perhaps this was actually “real” time, but neither of the first 2 appear, then one shows at 1604 – goodness only knows which of the 3 this one is.
The travel centre has finally given up the ghost here and is permanently closed.
The 12 to Llandudno is a fairly quiet affair. A solitary open topper is on one the trips in the opposite direction – nice if the weather is good, but not many takers today. And how are you supposed to know which departures it’s operating anyway? Rhyl itself has its own open top service, but today isn’t the day for it, unless you fancy getting your hair wet.

Next day, I’m off from Llandudno to Caernarfon to ride the Welsh Highland Railway. To get there, I’m using local buses.
Arriva’s 5 will get me there. Today, I’m using a Red Rover ticket, which covers all other bus operators as well as the aquamarine one, but only on services west of Llandudno (Rhyl is obviously in a different time zone). The trip is a longish but uneventful one. Caernarfon is a lovely town, but its bus waiting facilities aren't great. The shelter has improved since last I was here, but the digital display has died a death. Gwynedd has also stopped producing its timetable booklet too, which isn’t great.

The digital display in Caernarfon - dead as a dodo...

I enjoy my trip on the Welsh Highland Railway to Porthmadog and highly recommend it for lovers of steam, narrow gauge railways and simply stunning scenery!
Arrival at Porthmadog sees the 2 coach loads of Shearings trippers besiege Spooners restaurant, so my plans for something with chips evaporate. I try the local ale and console myself with a packet of crisps.
From here I have decided not to go on the Ffestiniog this time, but to try Express Motors 1 bus service up to Bangor instead. The classic Welsh rain is hammering down and I join the locals huddled in the shelter for the 1, which arrives 10 minutes late. The windows are steamed up and there is slightly too much litter on the floor of the bus for my liking.

Steamy windows! Not a great view of the Welsh countryside!

 The driver is a friendly soul though, and I make my way back up to Bangor for a connection back on Arriva’s 5 to Llandudno where seagulls are my new best friends. Or maybe it’s my fish & chips on the beach they’re more interested in...

Tomorrow, I will attempt to travel doorstep to doorstep from my hotel to home on local buses...

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