The first of a series of posts from East of the M60
Besides the realisation of finding out about next year’s season ticket prices, there is one phrase which commuters dread. Almost as much as the inevitability of cancellations or delays beyond the franchisees’ or Network Rail’s control. One phrase which often means inferior rolling stock and extended journey times.
Ladies and gentlemen: I refer to that British institution, the rail replacement bus.
A necessary evil
Where engineering works are concerned, they are a necessary evil. The main reason, to ensure the safety of passengers and contractors alike. From past experience, my use of rail replacement buses is somewhat mixed. In Greater Manchester, often well organised. My most chaotic experience was at Birmingham New Street. Nobody knew where the buses or coaches were properly. Plus, both journeys were substantially slower than the rail journey time. My return journey from Redditch took a little under 2 hours to cover the 13 miles. The slowest section, north of Selly Oak. The bus, a rather clapped out Volvo B10BLE owned by Travel West Midlands.
It would be churlish to say all rail replacement buses are a poor substitute to the train. In one way, would you rather have no service at all, denying anyone a connection? If your main mode of transport is the car, I can understand your concerns. If you get the bus, not too much of a problem over short distances. If your usual service is normally operated with Class 142/143/144 Pacer units, they are sometimes an improvement!
What narks many people off is the lack of space for their luggage. Nothing new if you’re used to packed Blackpool bound trains. Worse if you’re a cyclist, though low floor buses are probably more conducive for the storage of bicycles in the pushchair bay. (But that would deny wheelchair users or buggies the space).
And of course, what if the service is disrupted by signal failure or something of a similar nature? Which mode of transport is best able to allow for short notice arrangements? The bus or coach, of course. If no alternative exists, for instance a parallel bus or tram route, one I would be eternally grateful for.
Why am I always fobbed off with a Dennis Dart?
It is lazy to assume that all rail replacement buses are operated with the most clapped out vehicles. Far from it! If you look at the sort of vehicles used on rail replacement buses, they often reflect the nature of the route. Three affected stops would warrant a minicoach or a low floor bus. Using Stalybridge as an example, passengers could choose to change for Manchester Piccadilly for a Transpennine Express train. If travelling to Ashton, they could – if The Old Lanky line is closed – opt for the rail replacement, or board a service bus into Ashton. Which is often more convenient, with 13 buses per hour in the daytime counting the less direct 387 and 389 services.
Using the Ashton experience, why can’t they allow train tickets to be shown on the 348 whilst the Stalybridge – Manchester Victoria line is closed for engineering works? A similar arrangement works on parallel bus services if the Metrolink is disrupted.
Identifying rail replacement bus operations
A well organised rail replacement bus operation would often feature:
- A weighty colleague in a hi-viz jacket stewarding passengers onto their bus or coach;
- A fellow colleague responding to enquiries from bemused passengers;
- A cleared forecourt with a notice board displaying the departure times, often augmented with electronic boards saying ‘BUS’ instead of platform numbers;
- A Pub Outing Class coach for provincial services, or a service bus over shorter journeys;
- Executive/Club Class coach for inter-city or express services;
- A card in the coach windscreen displaying its service number and/or destination;
- (Where service buses are used) an indicator displaying the words ‘Rail Replacement’ or the appropriate destination. Sometimes augmented with the double arrows or a natty little train picture.
But it’s a BUS…!
Well spotted of course, but it is classed as a rail service. In the eyes of the 1993 Railways Act, rail replacement buses are classed as a train service. They are also denoted by their own icon in timetable where engineering works are planned. This also allows for feeder buses to come under this description, for instance Midland Mainline’s feeder from Kettering to Corby, prior to the latter town’s reopening of its railway station. Hence the first privatised rail service in the UK being a rail replacement bus.
In almost twenty years of privatised rail services, the prominence of the rail replacement bus could be symptomatic of two developments. One is the amount of work required owing to an efficient publicly owned British Rail being denied necessary funds for track infrastructure beforehand. Another, is the rise of the likes of FirstGroup and Stagecoach in both bus, coach and rail interests. Nowadays, you are just as likely to see the Aberdonian or Perthshire conglomerates’ vehicles on the forecourt as well as on platform 3 or Stand G.
S.V., 04 May 2014.