HERE I GO AGAIN

After an inevitable pause in my train travel activities due to factors beyond my control, I’m back with another tour round Britain. I prepared for this by going on a lightning trip to London for the day last weekend. This would have been better if the outward trip hadn’t been 2 hours longer than it should have been due to a broken rail at Newark. Having said that, the service and food in Virgin East Coast first class was excellent, the staff very pleasant and the wi-fi reliable. If it hadn’t been that I was meeting a group of people in London for 4 hours, which turned into 2 hours, things would have been fine all round. I even tested out my new bluetooth keyboard, which transforms my trusty Kindle Fire, veteran of such trips as Edinburgh to Finland by rail and ferry, into a fearsome writing machine.

One thing that helped quite a bit during the delay was following the train companies on Twitter – one of them even posted a picture of the broken rail – and another thing, oddly enough, was that I had watched a documentary series on television recently about Kings’s Cross station and I was aware of some of the background to the problem.

Today I will set off in the direction of Oxford, which for some reason is best reached from Edinburgh by travelling down the East Coast route (again) and then across country. I’m not sure which train companies are involved but I am all set to give them marks out of ten, or whatever, for their efficiency, customer service, silly announcements and so on.

One reason for writing this post was to put off packing my bag, but I really must get on and do that, so I’m signing off for now!

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Not the Apocalypse after all

First of all, I would like to congratulate all the relevant train companies on not turning the landslide and train derailment at Watford last week into a total disaster. When I woke up that Friday morning, checked the Virgin Trains Twitter account and saw that all lines between Milton Keynes and Watford were closed, I thought there was no way we were going to be able to get to our Harry Potter studio tour, booked for that day. Even when some of the lines were said to have re-opened I thought we might not get there in time. However, despite having no luck in even getting a taxi to Milton Keynes station because (presumably) everyone else in the area had managed to call all the taxi companies first, and having to walk to the bus stop in pouring rain, we managed to reach Watford on schedule. Well done to London Midland trains and everyone else involved. we were slightly alarmed later on that day to hear that a second train had ‘nudged’ the derailed one, but this didn’t appear to have caused any serious injuries as far as I know.

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During our short break we travelled with Virgin Trains West Coast, London Midland, Cross-Country and Virgin Trains East Coast. Cross-Country seem to have upgraded their seating, at least on some trains, since I last travelled with them. All the trains were on time, apart from the Virgin East Coast one which actually arrived slightly EARLY in Edinburgh, perhaps because it had allowed itself about an hour and a half longer than usual for the journey from York to Edinburgh due to going round by Carlisle. I’m glad I found out about this in advance, because it would have come as a bit of a shock otherwise.

Although Virgin West Coast did better than it has done on some previous occasions described elsewhere on this blog, in the sense that there was actually a train available this time and it was even on time, I wasn’t all that impressed by the service in First Class, as my son and I were ravenously hungry by the time we arrived at our destination. On reflection, I think this was caused by the staff being in too much of a hurry for whatever reason. The trolley with food on it zipped past us and on up the aisle so quickly that we would have had to know exactly what we wanted (and what was available) if we were to ask for anything. But perhaps I was just spoiled by the excellence of the late lamented East Coast service.

The scenery on the West Coast route is pleasantly rural for much of the way, and the weather ranged from misty until we had passed the Lake District, to hazy sunshine around Lancaster and Preston, to sunshine at Coventry.

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Preparing for a journey

Yes, I am about to set off on one of my rail safaris round Britain – as usual, it is slightly more complicated than seems necessary.

Whereas I should be preparing for the journey by charging up my electronic equipment and finding my railcard, in fact I have been stalking Virgin Trains on Twitter, a pastime that is quite a bit more fascinating than it sounds. Everything that has previously happened to us in our various attempts to travel with Virgin Trains has evidently happened to many other people just over this past weekend – cancelled trains, no seat reservations, changes to departure platforms at the last minute, failure to provide functioning wi-fi, shortfall in food supplies in First Class…On top of that they have suffered from some sort of computer failure which meant people couldn’t even get their pre-ordered tickets printed out at the station but had to talk their way on board brandishing emails that proved they had actually booked.

Despite previous rants on this blog about Virgin Trains, I felt quite sorry for the people manning the Twitter account. It’s clear that passengers are far more likely to complain now that there is an easy way of doing so publicly via social media, and it’s also clear that, like Jeremy Corbyn, some of the complainants have no idea how to travel successfully by train in modern times.However, on reflection I realised that we are quite fortunate to live in Scotland in that respect, because we are accustomed to having to travel to London and other places further south for all sorts of reasons, whereas Londoners in particular tend to have everything on their doorstep and not to have to go very far to attend meetings, visit certain historic sites, attend national event or travel on Eurostar. We also tend to be very conscious of the cost of travel, so we book well in advance to get hold of the cheapest tickets possible and to make sure we have seat reservations. I don’t suppose every other traveller from Scotland does this, but I also usually be found at Edinburgh Waverley an hour or so before the train leaves, reading the small print nervously and hoping I’m waiting for the right train.

Anyway, this latest trip takes us first from Haymarket to Milton Keynes (watch out, Virgin West Coast, here we come!), then on a day out to Watford Junction, then from MK to Derby, changing trains at (I think) Tamworth, and then from Derby to Edinburgh via York. This last part of the journey seems to be going to take a lot longer than usual. I am guessing the East Coast main line is closed between Newcastle and Edinburgh that day, because all the Virgin Trains on that route are due to go round by Carlisle and the others are being replaced by buses.

I will be reporting back later on whether it all goes horribly wrong or is plain sailing. Keep your fingers crossed!

Haymarket station
Edinburgh – Haymarket station

 

A journey into the past

I embarked on another journey into the past the other day when I boarded the 2 coach train to Lochgelly for a family reunion. Most of the people present were quite distant relatives but we are all descended from a coal miner who lived in Dunfermline in the 17th century – the latest on him is that he or his ancestors, originated in Applecross, in Wester Ross, and he was probably a cattle drover who stayed on after bringing his cattle down to the Lowlands. Our previous meeting was held 2 years ago in Carnegie Hall (the Dunfermline one).

Even the journey from Edinburgh to Lochgelly took me into the past, as my ancestors lived at various times at many of the places along the route, my great-grandfather helped to build the Forth Rail Bridge, and we used to pass through, or change trains at, some of the other stations on our way to visit my grandmother in Dunfermline.

Annoyingly, the ticket machines at Haymarket only seem to allow you to go to ‘popular’ destinations, of which Lochgelly is not one – I can’t imagine why. When we used to travel through the area in the 1950s en route to and from Dunfermline, everything was smoky and dark for miles around, with evidence of coal mining and steam trains everywhere. Now Lochgelly’s quite a pleasant small town with a massive community centre, which I know from previous experience incorporates a proper theatre with a large scene dock.

Lochgelly station has a steep flight of steps leading down to the road at the side where trains from Edinburgh arrive, but to make up for that there is a very convenient bus service going up the hill into the centre of the little town, only two or three stops away. The Lochgelly Centre is near the junction of Station Road and Auchterderran Road.

On the way back I took a picture of North Queensferry from the Forth Bridge.

Please get in touch if you think you can talk me out of buying a ticket for a steam train trip on the Fife Circle line! I am fighting the temptation just now.

Who’s in the top spot?

This year (so far!) I’ve travelled with eight different train companies. I’ve just sacrificed a page of my current writing notebook to list them. In the interests of helping out other travellers, or at least of warning them what to expect, I thought I would write a post comparing them, using a set of perhaps random criteria that seem to me the most important. Of course safety is absolutely the most important criterion, but fortunately I cannot make any complaints about that. This year, unusually, I am unable to quibble either about my second most important criterion, which is whether the train actually turns up or not. So what follows may seem quite minor in the scheme of things. On the other hand, these minor details can loom quite large when you’re travelling a long way or making a lot of short journeys within a short time.

On Pitlochry station
On Pitlochry station

So here we go with the train company awards for 2015.

The contenders are Virgin East Coast, Virgin West Coast, Cross Country, Arriva Trains Wales, Scotrail, Eurostar, Deutsche Bahn, Thalys.

KEEPING TO TIMETABLE

Quite amazingly, the only train that ran more than a few minutes late in all these journeys was the Deutsche Bahn train from Berlin to Cologne, which as far as I can recall was half an hour late. So 10/10 for all the others in this category and about 8/10 for DB – this was a noticeable improvement on last year when neither of their trains reached its official destination at all.

CHANGING PLATFORM AT LAST MINUTE

I’m afraid Virgin East Coast definitely wins this award for sending us from one end of Edinburgh Waverley to the other with only 10 minutes to go before departure time. But a special mention here to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, where it’s almost impossible to find the right platform anyway, even if there aren’t any last-minute changes of plan.

CATERING

Scotrail’s on-board catering is way ahead of the rest, being extremely frequent and efficient as well as generally being staffed by pleasant people. They do have the built-in advantage in that their trains often have far fewer coaches than the longer-distance ones and are sometimes quieter too. The other companies, e.g. Cross Country, often seem to give up on their trolley service at various points during the journey, while the Scotrail one persists to the bitter end.

Virgin’s at-seat first-class service is good too although I am not sure it’s quite as good as that of the previous train company on the East Coast route.

I haven’t sampled Eurostar catering, mainly because once I fold myself into one of their extremely cramped seats (see below) I don’t really want to have to get up again until we reach our destination.

I was disappointed by the catering in Deutsche Bahn’s first-class coaches. Although there is quite a good menu available, the staff don’t seem to have the appropriate tools for their task, i.e. somewhere to write down orders or a trolley to deliver them on. While not being quite as horrendous as the cheese, mayonnaise and gherkin sandwiches and luke-warm Cola I got from the second-class buffet  on leaving Cologne at 5 a.m. last year, it does seem a bit amateurish.

To sum up, for companies who aren’t Scotrail it’s best to go to M&S at the station and grab a giant vegetable samosa, a drink and a slice of Victoria sponge cake before you board the train. Or if you’re in Brussels waiting for the Eurostar, you can get a really nice slice of quiche at one of the food outlets.

WI-FI

In my experience the free wi-fi that most train companies boast of nowadays is a waste of time – it disconnects randomly and is often so anaemic that it doesn’t even allow you to look at Twitter, never mind email or Facebook.

Virgin East Coast first-class ‘free’ wi-fi is quite good, but DB first-class wi-fi isn’t.

The best train wi-fi I have come across is the paid version offered by Cross Country. It cost me about £4 to access it all the way from Derby to Edinburgh, and the service was excellent.

SEATS

I don’t think I would have noticed this if I hadn’t done so many journeys within such a short time, but the comfort of train seats varies tremendously. DB seats, for instance, look as if they should be comfortable but they appear to be made for giants – I think of myself as quite tall but I couldn’t reach the foot-rests for some reason. By contrast Eurostar seats, in the cheap section anyway, have almost no leg-room, although the journey is fairly short so it doesn’t matter a lot, and they do feel quite cosy!

Thalys seats seem to be ok, as are Virgin east and west coast. Arriva Trains Wales are a bit more cramped. Cross Country are the least comfortable – the seats seem to be made in an odd shape with a raised front edge that catches you just above the knee.

Scotrail take the award for best seats. I don’t know why they’re so comfortable. Maybe they’re specially designed for true Scots or something!

SEAT RESERVATIONS

Oh, dear, Virgin trains both east and west. Even when you manage to get the seat reservations in place, they are often so confusing that people ignore them anyway.

ANNOYING ANNOUNCEMENTS

Oh dear. Them again. If it isn’t endless lists of foods that are allegedly available from the buffet, which is almost always at the other end of the train, it’s stupid voice-overs in the loos, especially on the west coast route. Just stop it.

HELPFUL ANNOUNCEMENTS

Scotrail is best (again. Not that I’m biased) for helpful and very clear announcements telling you what the next stop will be and whether it’s a request stop, of which there are many in the far north. And no excess verbiage – see above.

SUMMING UP

So Scotrail is best for catering, most comfortable seats and most helpful announcements.

Cross Country’s wi-fi is ahead of the others.

Virgin East Coast gets the ‘changing platforms at the last minute’ award and Virgin West Coast the ‘annoying announcements’ award.

Thanks to all the train companies mentioned for getting me there and back again through the year without any serious incidents!

Almost the end of the line

I’ve been waiting until I had enough time to do it justice to write more about the journey from Inverness to Thurso. I don’t know if that’s the case even now, but I can’t see any end in sight to the madness of these two weeks so I want to do it now before I forget things.

Waiting-room at Dalwhinnie
Waiting-room at Dalwhinnie

As you travel north, there are some fairly eccentric stations. The waiting-room depicted here is at a station on the Perth to Inverness stretch, but there is a similar one at Helmsdale, only it’s constructed from wood and metal instead of brick, and has windows, which seems like a distinct advantage.

Dunrobin Castle station
Dunrobin Castle station

Further north from Dalwhinnie, past Inverness, there is a special station for Dunrobin Castle, a former residence of the Dukes of Sutherland now open to the public and to private companies for archery and (I expect) other dangerous pastimes. The scenery is coastal in this area and there are long sandy beaches and long, perhaps equally sandy, golf courses. I believe it was on one of these courses that my mother once won a competition, got drunk on cider at the prize-giving ceremony and couldn’t stop laughing for days.

View up to the station in Helmsdale
View up to the station in Helmsdale

I got off the train for a few hours at Helmsdale to try and follow up a family history lead, as my great-great-great-great-grandfather was from this area. I didn’t find out anything definite – more background research will be needed – but it was great to see the place and look at the Timespan museum and archives.

Helmsdale station and signal box
Helmsdale station and signal box

Helsmdale is the point where the line turns inwards and runs almost across the top of Scotland. This was the most fascinating part of the journey for me as the scenery changed again – I believe this is called the ‘flow country’ – and there is lots of peat, some hills that look deceptively gentle compared with these a bit further south, and herds of deer that run from the train. There are also plenty of quirky little request stop stations where there is hardly even a platform, just a grassy bank. Our train didn’t stop very often at these, but I think the train service must still be a lifeline in these remote places.

Because the scenery was so wonderful and I started to look out for more deer after spotting the first small herd, I managed not to take any photographs on this part of the journey. Oh well, I will just have to go back and do it all again!

New favourite route?

The whole rail route from Edinburgh to Thurso must be one of the most scenic in the country, something I realised once I got over my panic about the southward creep of Gaelic. I’ve travelled the section from Edinburgh to Pitlochry so often that I suppose I’ve become almost immune to the wonders of the Forth Bridge, the charms of the Fife coast (not all routes go this way) and the gradual replacement of Lowland with Highland scenery.
The stations from Perth to Inverness tend to be very well kept – especially Pitlochry, with its multiplicity of floral features – and even the forests look as if they had been manicured, perhaps by the Forestry Commission.

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I’ve tried here to capture the look of Aviemore station with its smart colour scheme and twiddly wrought-iron accessories. There is much more to it!
As I write this I am travelling back through this part of the Highlands, and I can see that the scenery, as well as changing with each mile along the way, looks different each time you travel. So when we headed north through Drumochter on Wednesday it was gloomy and forbidding. Now, on a bright Saturday morning, there are pockets of early morning mist in the dips, but the hills are lit by sunlight and you can see all the patches of heather and tufts of grass and protruding rocks in quite a bit of detail, even from the train windows.
The stretch of line north of Inverness was completely new to me but it was the best part, with the huge skies of Sutherland above us and the passing scenery opening out as we reached the coast and then changing again as we climbed from Helmsdale to cross the top of the Scottish mainland, scaring away herds of deer as we went.
There will be more pictures later! Here’s one for now.

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Cloud formations out in the North Sea, near Brora