The Duffers’ Guide to Rail Operations: Rail Replacement Buses

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.


5 thoughts on “The Duffers’ Guide to Rail Operations: Rail Replacement Buses

Add yours

  1. Most rail replacement in Northwest are quite well organised these days and are operated by First Transport Solutions rail support division and they actually have a list of preferred operators which they ring up at the earliest opportunity should anything go wrong or in the case of engineering works.

    Operators in Manchester and surrounding areas that are normally involved in Rail Replacements including the following:

    K-Matt Coaches
    R Bullock Coaches
    Wigan Coachways
    Finches Bus & Coach (for replacement in/around Wigan area)
    Atlantic Travel (Bolton)
    Atlantic Executive (Heywood)

    One other thing to remember about Rail Replacement services is that despite the fact it might go past or near to where you may live the driver is only insured to drop you off at appropriate stops at or near Railway Stations, just ask yourself this “Would the train drop you off outside or near to where you live” and if not you know what the answer from the driver is probably going to be


    1. Hi Andrew,

      Excellent point on the rail replacement buses, and your opening sentence neatly complements my last one. I too have noticed the high standards around the North West. For instance, no passengers being fobbed off with Dennis Darts, in favour of modern Enviro400s.

      Not only that, credit should also be given to TfGM and the rail franchisees for clearly marking bus stop flags with the words ‘rail replacement’. Ditto the above with reference to stops in printed timetables and on the National Rail website.

      And yes, I can imagine the response your friendly bus or train driver would give if you wanted him or her to stop near your own home. Obviously it would involve some choice language, unsuitable for publication on this blog.

      Bye for now,



  2. Bustitution, as this practice is now known, should result in refunds of partial fares, using the level of the standard coach fare between the two rail towns where the substitution occurs. Additionally, 1st class passengers should be entitled to a taxi and not a bus and definately a refund, no matter what.


    1. Hi Buspilot,

      Not a bad idea, though this move may be unpopular with some sections of the general public. Some may argue ‘tough cack’ or words to that effect, for paying extra to use the same route, for the sake of a bigger seat or free tea.

      Perhaps First Class passengers should be entitled to a refund on a section which, if under normal service conditions, was unavailable on the coach. I would say the refund should constitute a rebate of their fare as you said, down to Standard Class levels.

      However, their may be some issues if he or she purchased a First Class advance ticket for less than the walk-on Standard Class fare, meaning an increase! Weekend First supplements could be refunded in full.

      Bye for now,



    2. What if there is no coach service?
      And on shorter journeys, what if the heavily subsidised rail fare is cheaper than the equivalent bus fare


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