In this, and all following posts, I shall assume that readers have internet access but also that such access may not be available to them at all times - or at all - when on a boat. There are some instances, particularly when we get to where the bus stops are, where smartphones are invaluable, but on the whole it's perfectly possible to manage without them as people always used to.
There are two basic tools for finding out where the buses go. The "Journey Planner" and the map. Each does a different job. Firstly we will consider Planners. Most people will be familiar with journey planners either for rail travel or for planning car journeys. There are two widely-used journey planners for buses.Traveline and Transport Direct.
Traveline is run by a consortium of bus operators and local authorities and is organised on a regional basis. There are twelve regional sites, all accessible from one home page. The bus data is provided by local authorities, who maintain their own databases of bus services. It also includes train services.
Transport Direct is a government site that, using the same data, will plan a journey using buses and trains, just buses or trains or even by car. It's better than Traveline for long-distance journeys that cross regional boundaries. The bus data for both sites is provided by local authorities that maintain their own databases of bus services. The principle is simple. You enter your point of origin, destination and time of travel and are presented with a number of itineraries.
These sites should be used with caution! Here are some of the pitfalls:
1) You need to look closely at the results. As part of the research for this post I made an enquiry of both sites for a Saturday afternoon journey from Norbury Junction to Wolverhampton (chosen because I knew it wouldn't be easy). Traveline's East Midlands site (which also covers the West Midlands and large parts of southern England for some reason) couldn't find anything on a Saturday so gave me details for a Friday instead! This wasn't immediately clear and could have led to a very frustrating (non) trip.
Transport Direct couldn't find anything either, but at least it said so. Traveline's West Midlands site however came up with a number of suggestions involving taxis to nearby villages from where buses could be caught.
2) Traveline has a facility to distinguish between "buses" and "coaches". Transport Direct doesn't and treats them all as buses. This can lead it to suggest using a National Express coach for a totally-inappropriate journey without explaining that on such services you are expected to book a ticket in advance. The worst example of this I have come across was on Transport for London's planner, which once advised me to get from Central London to Greenwich by getting a bus to New Cross Gate followed by a National Express Coach, with a one-minute connection! Some planners even suggest using "dial-a-ride" type services even though these MUST be booked in advance and have routes and timetables that vary according to demand - making connections and exact timings very difficult.
3) Both sites can sometimes suggest changing buses unnecessarily. Buses using the same stretch of road won't always have the same running times and if the planner perceives that it can get you to your destination one minute quicker by changing buses it will suggest this without a thought for the practicalities. Where a change is necessary planners will often suggest changing buses at the first point that the routes come together, even if this is an obscure rural location, rather than waiting until the two buses come to somewhere more suitable such as the next town where a more reliable connection can be made.
4 The Planner will not necessarily suggest the obvious place to catch a bus. Planners are programmed to find the fastest route between two points. They will therefore suggest catching a bus from a stop at the edge of a town centre rather than a central bus station because that offers a "faster" journey. You can avoid this by specifying "Main bus station" in your enquiry, but then you might be advised to get a different bus to the edge of centre stop and change there if that offers a theoretically faster journey.(See today's tip, below)
The waterways are renowned for having places, such as Norbury, Fradley, Cowroast, Autherley Junction and the like that are very significant to boaters but otherwise almost unknown outside their immediate vicinity. The good news is that the journey planners all seem to know these points even if they are not served by bus. An enquiry for "Harecastle Tunnel" came up with a number of suggested locations in Kidsgrove (which isn't bad) and "Foxton Locks" was immediately recognised.
So: Check that the date of travel you requested is the one being offered; Ignore suggestions that include coaches or demand-responsive services and be wary of suggested connections that may or may not be necessary.
TIP OF THE DAY: After obtaining an itinerary follow the links to the actual timetables of the suggested services. You may find that that a "connection" is unnecessary or can be made at a more convenient location. (I'm assuming everyone can read a timetable....If not let me know)
Oh! and if you prefer to deal with a human being, or you don't have internet access, all the information in the journey planners is available over the telephone on 0871 200 22 33 or, if you prefer not to pay the 10p/minute charge (more from mobiles), you can use one of these geographical numbers here.
Journey Planners are OK for specific enquiries, not so good at giving a general overview of the bus network in a particular area. So, NEXT TIME: Maps!