Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Take Care When Going to Carnforth.

  UPDATE  By mid-day today (Wednesday) Stagecoach's website was showing an emergency version of the 55 timetable that included no mention of service 555. We look forward to the finished product.

At a recent meeting of the Bus Users' Group Mark Whitelocks, Stagecoach Cumbria & N. Lancs MD told us that his company had no plans to discontinue the production of printed publicity, unlike their neighbours in Merseyside and South Lancs.

The Group was pleased to hear this as we have always thought printed timetables to be an essential part of the information system and Stagecoach's publicity is better than most.  However, we are now beginning to wonder if they are losing their touch.

Take service 555. In the summer the hourly trunk Lancaster to Keswick service is augmented by journeys that run up the motorway to Kendal, cutting over half-an-hour off the journey time. Because they utilise vehicles that would otherwise be used on school and University services operation is limited to high summer on Monday to Friday although the Saturday journeys run for the whole of the season, which in the Lakes runs from late March to late October; but it isn't as easy as it could be for would-be passengers to find that out.

Service 555 is included in the Lakes Connection timetable - a handy booklet that covers all Stagecoach services in the Lake District and is an excellent way of selling the service to the many visitors and tourists the area attracts. Last summer's booklet ran from 24th March to the 28th October and here is an extract of the 555 timetable inside it

The fast motorway journeys are shaded in yellow and marked with a little 'sun' symbol. This is explained at the foot of the table

It is clear that the Monday to Friday service runs only from 2 July to 28 September.  But what does "all Saturdays" mean? It could be taken to mean all Saturdays between those July and September dates and the BUG is aware of several passengers who thought just that. But what it really means is "all Saturdays during the currency of the Summer timetable" and for that you have to refer to the front cover of what is an 86 page book!

The cover is the only place where the validity period of the guide is shown, but if you happened to look up the service 555 times on the internet (as we are told "everyone does" nowadays) you don't get to see that cover - just the timetable and the rather ambiguous note.  

Could be Worse

But at least anyone misunderstanding the note would not be unduly inconvenienced other than not being aware of the faster journeys that are available.  It's much worse if you are only going to Carnforth and travelling on a Sunday!

As well as losing the motorway journeys the 555 timetable undergoes a radical change in the Winter when it comes to the Sunday service. Although the frequency from Lancaster remains at every two hours the departure times are put back by 65 minutes so that whilst summer departures are at 0915, 1115, 1315, 1515 and 1715 in the winter they run at 1020 and every two hours until 1820. Southbound journeys leave Keswick at the same times as in the summer.

Of course, Stagecoach issues a winter version of its Lake District timetable (reduced to 74 pages!) and the 555 timetable is shown therein. So what is the problem?

Well, passengers between Lancaster and Carnforth have a choice between the 555 and the local 55 service that follows a similar route, albeit with a diversion via Hest Bank. The 55 isn't shown in the Lake District guide but passengers to Carnforth can see the full service open to them by consulting the 55 timetable, which includes a summary of the 555 service.  

The 55 is included in a booklet with other services to Carnforth, shown left, with the 55 and 555 advertised on the cover and shown inside.

This leaflet is available from all normal outlets including libraries, visitor information centres and Stagecoach's Travel Shop at Lancaster Bus Station.

The timetable for the 55 includes the 555 times between Lancaster and Carnforth.  Let's have a look below at the Sunday times:

There they are - leaving Lancaster at 0915, 1115, 1315 and 1715 - just as they have been doing all summer.  But let's have a another look at that leaflet cover - obtained from the bus station on 13th November.

Note the dates: The summer 555 timetable is shown because this is a "summer" leaflet - which Stagecoach has apparently chosen not to re-issue for the winter.

But does it matter? Surely everyone looks this up on line nowadays?  Maybe they do - and this was how the matter was drawn to our attention in the first place - but if you do look up the 55 timetable on line you get EXACTLY THE SAME TIMETABLE THAT IS IN THE OUT OF DATE LEAFLET!

The staff in the travel shop at Lancaster don't seem to think its a problem.  "Yes," we were told  "its an out of date leaflet but its only the 555 times that are wrong".  It may be misleading but that seems to be our fault because "we should be looking at the 555 leaflet!"

So take care if you're going to Carnforth next Sunday. You'll need to look up the (summer) 55 leaflet and the (winter) 555 guide to find out your times - and that applies whether you have paper copies or whether you look it up on line.

The Group has brought this to the attention of Stagecoach and hopes to see an early improvement.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

New Network Settling Down?

Service 2 via Bowerham is now worked by single-deckers
It is true to say that the introduction of Stagecoach's new Lancaster network on 8th October did not go entirely smoothly.  Due to the delay in the re-opening of Greyhound Bridge the introduction date co-incided with the first day of the new term at the University, meaning that drivers and regular passengers alike had no time to get to grips with the new service pattern before thousands of new students descended upon the city.

Things weren't helped by errors in the programming of Stagecoach's new electronic ticket machines which led to some passengers being overcharged and even drivers being unable to issue tickets for some journeys!

The new services hit trouble straight away (read again here) leaving many passengers - students and others - very unhappy by being unable to board buses that were already full and making them late for work and lectures.

But how are things one month on?

University services

The Bus Users' Group has been working with staff at the University to monitor the situation, particularly between 0800 and 0900 each morning when demand for buses to the University is very high.  In this respect at least, things seem to be getting better. For example, a check on Greaves Road on the morning of the 9th October saw a total of 11 buses pass Belle Vue Terrace between 0815 and 0905  but no fewer than nine of these were full and unable to pick up passengers including every bus between 0824 and 0854!  Some passengers who had arrived at the stop before 0815 were still waiting fifty minutes later, although others had given up and walked. One scheduled bus did not appear at all.

On following day, six of the buses were full and a seventh which did pick up at Belle Vue Terrace and Lily Grove was full on departure with no room for anyone at subsequent stops.

Service 1 heading back to the city on Greaves Road
When the check was repeated on 7th November only 4 full buses were observed and any passengers unable to board were soon picked up by the next bus. Of course, the passenger loadings on Greaves Road depend to a certain extent to those on Bowerham Road as passengers in the city centre will board whichever bus comes along first, but the Bowerham situation also seems to have got better.

So what has changed?  On October 9th of the 11 buses, 8 were double deckers and 3 singles a total of approximately 705 seats plus standing. On October 10th, when the survey covered a slightly longer period, the 13 buses seen consisted of nine double-deckers and four singles and about 815 seats

The 7th November check saw 15 buses - twelve of which were doubles and only 3 singles giving a total of over 1,000 seats - a huge improvement.

Two service 1's to the University: That on the right is a scheduled duplicate.
Stagecoach was known to have been scouring the country for additional double-deck buses as the only ones available locally were at Kendal depot and were open-toppers used in the Lakes on summer services. These were not considered suitable for winter use in Lancaster!  At least one very nice new double-decker has been seen sporting Hull "Simplibus" branding and this is understood to be on loan from the local Stagecoach company in that city.

Heavy loadings are not confined to the peak however and duplicate buses continue to be required on service 1 throughout the day with demand concentrated on buses due to arrive at the University shortly before the hour, which is when many lectures begin.

The Group is continuing to monitor the situation and will press Stagecoach to make improvements, especially to timekeeping as many buses run very late and thus open up gaps in what should be a regular service.

Morecambe Woes

Away from Lancaster, Morecambe residents have been having problems with the new service 2 and especially those buses that continue to Heysham as a 2X.  These services replace the old 3 and 4, which ran from Lancaster via Bare and the promenade to Morecambe (3) and Heysham (4). The use of separate numbers was required by the differing routes between Lancaster and Bare but it also made it easy for passengers on the promenade to distinguish between those buses going through to Heysham and those going only as far as Morecambe bus station.

Now that these buses all follow the same route from Lancaster they all show service 2 "Morecambe" as a destination with those going further adding (in smaller type) "then 2X to Heysham". Unfortunately this isn't as easy for waiting passengers to read as a different number would be and some confusion is being caused especially in the case of late running buses appearing away from their scheduled times.  Lancashire's road side timetable displays don't help either as they don't distinguish between the two destinations very clearly. The BUG feels these could be improved and that Stagecoach should take action to identify the two destinations more clearly, perhaps by the use of separate numbers.

Service 1 at Heysham Towers. This one's going via Heysham Road.
A similar problem faces passengers on service 1, which now has two routes between Morecambe and Heysham. The buses do say, in small print, either "via Fairfield Road" or "via Heysham Road" on the front but again this is not easy for everyone to see and the Bus Users' Group feels that renumbering one of the variants to 1A would make things easier.
We are also aware that some passengers are being inconvenienced by the fact that these buses no longer call at Combermere Road and have asked Stagecoach to look again at this.

Also in Morecambe, the withdrawal of service 4 left the lower section of Bare Lane without any Stagecoach service at all.  Of the three stops left unserved by the company two still have a service by way of Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire's "Bare Circular" service 33 operated under contract to the County Council.  The third stop, on Hall Drive, is missed by the 33 but only by a few metres as it joins Bare Lane from Lonsdale Road just north of the stop.  Following a request from the Group, Lancashire County Council has now agreed to place a stop on a trial basis on Lonsdale Road so that passengers previously using the 4 from Hall Drive will know where they can catch the 33.

Service 6 / 6A has been improved with two 6A's an hour through to Lancaster from Morecambe via Westgate.
In all of this, we shouldn't overlook the improvements that Stagecoach has made to local services. The revamped 6A, with double the number of buses previously running between Lancaster and Morecambe via Westgate seems to be doing well and passenger numbers are beginning to build on the 1 at Mossgate Park, despite the hostility to the very idea of a bus service on the part of a small number of residents there.

The Group will continue to monitor the network, so if there are any other problems that need looking at, please let us know.

Monday, 15 October 2018

New Services Hit Problems in First Week

An "off-peak" bus to the University on Day One of the new network

Stagecoach's new Lancaster network came into force on Monday and it's fair to say it experienced more than a few "teething problems".  It has to be said that if you wanted to completely revise routes and timetables for Lancaster's busiest bus services, including all those to and from the University, you probably wouldn't want to do it on the very first day of term, when lots of new students who don't know the times, the routes or the fares are trying to make their journey for the first time!

Of course, Stagecoach didn't plan it that way. The new network was always timed for introduction when Greyhound Bridge re-opened in August. . . then September....then - with less than a week's notice. . .the 7th October.  Had things gone to plan, the new routes would have had time to bed down and for regular passengers and staff to get used to them before the annual onslaught of university traffic began.

It didn't help that, despite the county council's promises, Greyhound Bridge didn't re-open "fully". Throughout week one only one lane was open  westbound, whilst the inbound bus lane on Morecambe Road between Carlisle Bridge and the A6 junction was out-of-use until Friday.

The single-deckers on service 2 have been leaving people behind.
As expected, most problems have occurred on the University routes, especially on service 2 via Bowerham, where a reduced frequency and substitution of double deckers by singles have led to overcrowding, full buses and passengers being left behind.  Problems have also occurred on Greaves Road where the new service 1, now double-decked, has been unable to cope at peak times.

The reasoning behind the changes was sound. Stagecoach sought to concentrate maximum capacity - the largest buses and the most frequent service - on the fastest route between the city and the University. Under the old network, students would often let the double-deckers on the roundabout Bowerham route go by and wait instead for a faster ride on the less frequent single-deck buses on Greaves Road. Encouraging more university passengers to catch the Greaves Road buses by improving the service would, it was thought, leave more room for locals along the Bowerham route whilst adding more seats on the service via Greaves.

That it hasn't worked out like that, at least so far, is due to a number of factors.  The main reason appears to be the sheer numbers of passengers.  Historically, the first week of term has always been busy with maximum loadings. As time goes by, students find they don't have to travel at the start of the day - or indeed at all on some days - and those that do travel find they are offered lifts or car-shares or take up cycling or walking, all of which eases the pressure on the service.

It's also unclear whether Stagecoach know how many students to expect.  Student numbers are rising every year and the proliferation of custom-built student residences in the city centre and the move away from suburban housing for students changes the balance of passenger loadings each year by an unpredicatble amount.

But Stagecoach admits that some of its problems are self-inflicted. The company recently invested in new ticket machines for its buses, which can accept contactless card payments and these have had teething problems themselves.  It appears that serious errors were made in programming the new machines for the new services. This led to some passengers being overcharged and drivers had difficulty in issuing tickets to destinations that were "missing" from the machines!  All this led to vastly increased loading times which then caused the buses to run late, leading to gaps in the service and adding to the problems.

The University and the Bus Users' Group have been out and about monitoring the new services in an attempt to identify the areas of most concern and are working with Stagecoach to see where extra resources may be needed to solve the problems that some people are having - not just students but also people who are late getting to work because they can't get on a bus.

Away from the University a few other problems have come to light and have been raised on our Facebook page.  Here are some of them, together with the BUG's view:

"The last evening buses from Lancaster back to Heysham are now too early and bar staff and other night-time workers can't get home."
                          BUG: Last bus to Heysham Towers is now 2340.Later buses are term time only and go only as far as Euston Road.  During the Bridge closure the last bus was 0038 (38 minutes past midnight) although before Greyhound Bridge closed it was 2330 with later buses to the Battery.  The last bus to Heysham Towers is therefor now 10 minutes LATER than it was in January.  We will however raise the matter with Stagecoach.

"There is no longer a direct link from Bowerham to Euston Road which means anyone working near Euston Road has to set off earlier to get to work on time"
                      BUG: This is true and in the example given to us the journey between the two points was actually quicker when Greyhound Bridge was closed than it is now. We will make Stagecoach aware of this.

"The first bus from Heysham to the University is too late for an 0800 start time for workers."
                       BUG: The first service 1 through bus does not arrive until 0755 and has been reported as being often late.  However, it is possible to reach the University at 0737 or 0752 by getting the 2X to Lancaster and then service 2 to the University

"The first bus on service 4 into the city is too late for schoolchildren"
                     BUG: The first one is now the 0827 from the University.  Before the bridge closed it left at 0800.  We will take this up with Stagecoach.

"The last bus from the railway station to the University on service 4 is much earlier than the previous U3R journey at 1843"
                 BUG: True. But the U3R was a temporary service running only when the bridge was closed. Before the closure the last departure on what was then 3A was at 1736. The last service 4 is now 1815.

"There is no longer a through service between West End Road and Combermere Road"
             BUG:  From the Westminster Road end of West End road this is true and we will pass this on to Stagecoach. We have also had a suggestion that service 1 should run via Combermere Road, which would solve the problem and this seems a good idea.

"Service 6A should serve the Retail Park at Mellishaw Lane"
            BUG: Getting a service to the Retail Park is a long-standing objective for this Group and we will continue to press Stagecoach to consider this.

The Bus Users' Group will forward all these matters to Stagecoach which is intending to review the network when it has settled down.  Thank you to everyone who has commented and sent suggestions.