Busway complexity

January 31st, 2014

Stagecoach have just announced a new timetable for their Busway services from 23rd February onwards. This has been reported in the press as offering five minute frequency between Cambridge and St Ives during peak hours, as the present service is now apparently at capacity. Let’s have a look at the timetable:

  • the five-minute frequency service starts at 0700 from St Ives (for service towards Cambridge) and continues until 0840. Buses going outbound from Cambridge in the morning peak have a 7-8 minute frequency.
  • In the evening peak, the five-minute service starts at 1613 and continues until 1753, when the service goes back to a 7-8 minute frequency. Buses from St Ives to Cambridge are 7-8 minute frequencies during this period.

Stagecoach are admitting in the News article that they don’t have enough buses to operate a more intensive service than this, but did suggest that they’d be open to buying some more in the near future – particularly with “Chesterton Station and Northstowe” coming onstream in the next few years.

However, they’ve done the usual bus company thing of complicating the timetable in order to shoehorn in extra occasional services to various outlying districts. If you look at the timetable document, you’ll find the main timetable shows buses on the “core” busway – the northern termini are Peterborough, Hinchingbrooke hospital, RAF Wyton and Marley Road in St Ives. However, towards the end of the document, you’ll find details of “village commuter” services in the morning and evening peaks. So, for instance, a bus shown in the main timetable as starting at Marley Road at 0710 has in fact come from Chatteris via Pidley. Whilst these extra services are no doubt welcome to the residents of the places they serve, they all operate as part of “busway route A”, meaning that users unfamiliar with the timetable are potentially going to be quite confused by the destination indicator. The “A” route is supposed to start from Trumpington P&R, which means a single decker bus – the double-deckers don’t fit under the bridge in Trumpington, and terminate in St Ives or at RAF Wyton. We now have a number of morning peak buses that are designated as Route A but which don’t go to Trumpington, terminating instead at Cambridge station – I wonder if these are double-deckers? One of them makes an off-timetable continuation to Long Road Sixth Form College, just for bonus complication! Likewise, in the evening peak some of the “route A” services start from the station rather than Trumpington. “Route B” buses are even more complicated – even on the off-peak schedule they have 2bph to Hinchingbrooke (calling at Huntingdon bus station), with 1bph to Peterborough (again, via Huntingdon bus station) and 1bph which terminates at Huntingdon, but which is the only one of the four to go to Huntingdon railway station. Effectively, the only thing the route letter tells you reliably is which stops the bus serves in Cambridge – “A” buses go via the Science Park, Milton Road and Victoria Bridge, call at New Square and continue to the rail station and “B” buses go via Orchard Park West and Shire Hall, terminating at Drummer Street. Going the other way, you do at least vaguely get the idea that “B” buses go to Huntingdon, although a few “A” buses do as well…

Clear as mud. Perhaps it’s time to think about how the complex routeing and timetable arrangements affect how easy the system is to use?

A new era for electro-diesels

January 27th, 2014

We’ve had electric trains in the UK since the 1890s, and diesel locomotives first started to appear in the 1930s. But for the last fifty years, the UK has had one unusual locomotive: the boxy Class 73 Electro-Diesel. These rather uncharismatic locos have a unique talent – they can run on electrical power from the third rail, or on their own power from a diesel generator. They were built for the Southern Region of British Rail mostly to handle freight, but they did also get used to haul the Boat Trains that ran from London to the Channel ports. The 73s are still in service, rescuing dead EMUs and handling freight and engineering trains all over Southern England.

The electro-diesel concept didn’t really catch on because it was difficult to squeeze both power systems into the locomotives. The Class 73s are very successful, but they are primarily an electric locomotive: the diesel generator can only supply half the output power that’s available in electric mode. Improvements in both the efficiency of diesel engines and the compactness of power electronics means that these limitations can now be overcome, and we’re about to see a whole range of new electro-diesel trains enter service in the UK.

Freight operations on UK railways are mostly diesel-hauled at present, since many freight terminals are located on private sidings that aren’t electrified. Most freight trains run point-to-point rather than being shunted in marshalling yards, so there’s often no sensible reason to switch from an electric loco to a diesel one. However, the rising cost of fuel and the fact that much more of the mainline network is to be electrified means that one freight operator, Direct Rail Services, has decided to order new ED locomotives. These are being made by Vossloh in Spain, and will be primarily electric locos, using 25kV overhead supply. In electric mode, the power output is 4MW (nearly 5,500 horsepower). However, they have a “last mile” diesel capability using a 700kW (930hp) onboard generator – just enough to shunt gently down a siding or short branch line. For example, the BMW-Mini factory here in Oxford is served by its own short branch (which is all that’s left of a line that once went to High Wycombe), and long car-carrier trains are shunted a couple of miles to the main line just south of Oxford station. Once the “Electric Spine” programme is completed, trains from the factory could change to electric power and run at full speed as far as Southampton docks, or join the main electric network in the Midlands.

Passenger services will also be moving to electro-diesel in the next few years. The Intercity Express Programme is a project to replace the UK’s fleet of IC125 High Speed Trains, which date from 1975. Hitachi Rail have won the tender, and will be delivering two fleets of fast, long-distance passenger trains. The Class 800 trains are described as “bi-mode” and are electro-diesel sets which are designed to operate at full speed in diesel mode. These will be used for services to destinations “beyond the wires” – such as London-Aberdeen. The sister Class 801 trains are designed for service operation only on electrified routes, but will still have a small diesel generator set that can be used to shunt in depots and deal with power failures. Modern trains are air-conditioned and a power failure can result in severe discomfort for passengers, so the new trains will be able to start their generators to keep the lights and air conditioning working, and crawl slowly to the next station.

Finally, the venerable 73s are not being forgotten – two units are currently in the workshops of Railway Vehicle Engineering Ltd in Derby being fitted with modern Cummins diesel generator sets. These are much more powerful than the units they replace, meaning that these two new 73s will have equal performance in diesel and electric modes. I suspect that these will be really useful engines…

Plusbus again

January 2nd, 2014

Following my previous rant about the complexities of Cambridge’s bus ticketing, there’s a further interesting item to add to the mix – Plusbus. As I’ve discussed before, Plusbus is an add-on to a railway ticket that allows use of local buses. The Cambridge version costs £3.10 (plus your rail ticket), which is a reasonable saving on a £3.90 dayrider. it covers the same area as the Stagecoach Dayrider but also works on Whippet buses, including Busway routes C and D. If you’re a railcard user, the discount applies, cutting the cost to £2.05 (plus rail ticket). Greater Anglia (who manage Cambridge, Waterbeach, Ely and Shelford stations) are supposedly upgrading all their vending machines to sell Plusbus tickets, otherwise you can buy one as an upgrade to a machine-issued ticket when you arrive at Cambridge station. It’s also possible to buy them online and then collect from any ticket machine.