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The Way Back

A few days after travelling to Llandudno we did the same journey again the other way round. Of course it’s never exactly the same as before. For instance, the trains were a little less crowded because it was no longer a bank holiday weekend, and there were more masks in evidence, probably because the average age of the passengers was a bit higher. On the other hand, on one of the Transport for Wales trains there was even less leg-room than before, and I began to get cramp and had to stick one leg out into the aisle and watch for people approaching so that I could move it out of the way.

Llandudno station on a post-Bank Holiday morning

We changed trains at all the same places as before. There was a slight delay coming into Manchester when another train got ahead of ours at a junction. Just before the junction it crossed a bridge that I decided I wanted to photograph, but by the time I fished my phone out to take the picture, we had gone a little past it. The resulting image is, I think, like something out of a dystopian nightmare, but I am strangely proud of it.

We have a thing about bridges in our family so I looked this one up online and discovered it’s quite a new one that forms part of an extra section of track linking all the Manchester stations together. It’s also an unusual asymmetric bridge. I knew there was some good reason for photographing it! This part of Manchester is full of railway and canal history and it was also once the site of a Roman fort at Castlefield.

Manchester, approaching Castlefield, with the Ordsall Chord network arch viaduct

We had an hour and a half to wait at Oxford Road station. I had planned this to try and make sure we wouldn’t miss our final train. Thanks to an extremely small branch of Costa Coffee, we ate toasties for some of this time, and, refreshed by the break from routine, I thought of an idea for a new series of comedy thrillers. Well actually, it was mostly the titles I thought of. There weren’t any plots involved.

As we had waited so long, we were on the alert for last-minute platform changes, and right on cue, another train got stuck at the platform our train was supposed to depart from – the other train apparently had no driver, which was slightly alarming as we had seen it moving to the platform in the first place. However the change of platform on this occasion didn’t cause any inconvenience as our train just came in at the other side of the same platform and we didn’t have to rush to get up to the footbridge or down to the subway to find a different one. Obviously Transpennine are mere amateurs at platform-changing compared to the now departed Virgin trains, who once sent us from one side of Waverley station to the other (a 10 minute walk involving escalators, footbridges and steps) 5 minutes before our train was due to depart.

On the Rails Again

I’ve missed travelling by train so much that I’ve now become addicted to watching rail-related programmes ranging from Great British Rail Journeys through Secrets of the London Underground to Yorkshire Steam Railways. But at last I’ve had the opportunity to get on board a train again. Not just one train either, but eight separate trains. You would think I could travel to the ends of the earth or at least the furthest reaches of Europe using eight trains, but in fact that’s what it takes to get from Edinburgh to Llandudno and back these days.

The first part of our outward journey was on a Transpennine service from Edinburgh to Manchester. We travelled in style, as the first class coach was very comfortable and also sparsely populated, and although theoretically there was no food service we were offered bottled water and biscuits.

I admired the roof of Carlisle station when we arrived there. I can’t recall noticing the fancy curly bits the last time I was there, which was a few years ago when we changed on the way back from Center Parcs. But there was scaffolding all over the place then, which may have hidden the roof from view.

There was a colourful train, not one of ours, waiting at Manchester Oxford Road when we changed there. Oxford Road is quite a small station with few facilities but I had learnt from previous experience that Manchester Piccadilly, the main station, is rather complicated and the platforms I  want always turn out to be the furthest away, so I deliberately chose not to change there.

We then used three Transport for Wales trains to reach our destination, Llandudno. The trains varied in comfort as one of them had very little leg room, and in safety, as many of the younger passengers in particular were not wearing face masks and two out of three of the trains were very busy. We changed trains at Chester and Llandudno Junction. Chester station has a very oddly arranged footbridge with different lanes depending on which platform you’re going to.

The last part of the journey is very scenic as you catch a glimpse of Conwy Castle almost immediately after leaving Llandudno junction, and then travel along beside the river for much of the short journey.

After all my experiences of things going wrong on trains, I’m pleased to report that all 4 trains on our outward journey ran exactly to time.

Sunny Llandudno

Another Journey, Another Train Company

It’s a while since I posted here and I am really only doing so now in order to highlight another train company which has incurred my disapproval (sorry). I travelled by train twice in September and both these journeys were almost perfect, which was a nice surprise, and once in November, when the return trip was a bit of a nightmare (but at least there was a train).

We went on holiday to Center Parcs near Penrith early in September. We had chosen this for a short break because it looked as if it should be easy to get to, and surprise surprise, it was. We travelled with both Transpennine Express and Virgin Trains, and all our trains were on time and not too busy. So nothing to report really, apart from the fact that Carlisle Station, a place which always brings back memories of being stranded there when our train from Edinburgh to Crewe was cancelled, is currently in a terrible mess, with scaffolding obscuring the train departure times in many places. I expect it will be nice when it’s finished!

28 carlisle station 2

I also travelled to and from Crewe in September, mainly because I was trying to get to Derby but I was prevented from going to and from there in one day due to engineering works on the East Coast route (again!) and after a lot of consideration, I decided to stay overnight in Crewe en route – despite our previous bad experience with trying to get to Crewe from Edinburgh and almost failing. However Virgin Trains did not let me down this time.

I travelled from Crewe to Derby for the day using East Midland Trains, and was favourably impressed with the low price if not by the train itself which was a very tiny and overcrowded single coach thing. However the route is very pleasant, and stopping at Uttoxeter inspired happy memories of the times we have got on and off there en route to Alton Towers.

Derby

As I write, I have just returned from a work trip to Manchester. On the way there we used the Transpennine Express train to Manchester Airport, and that was fine – reservations working, train on time etc. The return trip was quite unpleasant, although  we should probably have anticipated that travelling on an unreserved train late on a Friday afternoon might be problematic. The Northern train we got on was extremely overcrowded – my work colleague didn’t manage to get a seat. It was running quite a bit late by the time it reached Preston, where we had to change. Fortunately the Virgin Train we were getting on was also running late, so no surprises there. I was in the middle of telling my colleague the story of how my son and I had gone down to Waverley station to catch a Virgin Train and he said to me ‘I suppose they’ll change the platform at the last minute and there’ll be no seat reservations’ and both these things happened, when  both these things happened again.  It’s always tricky when there are no seat reservations as some people then completely disregard the numbers on their tickets and just sit anywhere, and others try to cling on to the seat they were meant to sit in, so there is some potential for chaos.

But as usual, it was Virgin West Coast and we were quite pleased there was a train.

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!

wpid-img_20140507_123840.jpg

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.

hp-night-bus-1

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.

train-window

 

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!

From U-Bahn to Bimmelbahn

I almost feel sorry for all the harsh words I’ve written about both Deutsche Bahn and Virgin Trains in the past – almost, but not quite. They managed on this occasion to contribute to a more or less trouble-free journey from Edinburgh to Berlin and back via Aachen and Cologne. That doesn’t really eradicate all their past mistakes from my memory, and I will always have a contingency plan in the back of my mind in case things go horribly wrong in future. Of course in some ways the success of travel plans depends on luck in any case. We were lucky on this occasion that we didn’t plan on travelling a few days later than we did, when Eurostar travel was seriously disrupted by strikes.

Alexanderplatz Ubahn station
Alexanderplatz Ubahn station

I’ve lost count of the different forms of transport we used during this latest trip. Trains, of course. The U-bahn and S-bahn in Berlin – is it just me, or is the S-bahn spookily like the El in Chicago? And in fact, isn’t Berlin quite a bit like Chicago in some ways? Trams. Taxis. But the weirdest one of all was probably the Schoko-Express, or Bimmelbahn, in Cologne.

Schoko Express
Schoko Express

We took this little train – that looks so innocent and friendly, and is actually as scary as some of the fairground rides I’ve been on, because it runs along ordinary streets, in the middle of the Cologne traffic, and on occasion has to get out of the way rather too quickly when four fire-engines come up behind it, as happened when we were on our way back from the Chocolate Museum. Once we had done that, the idea of travelling back from London to Edinburgh with Virgin Trains definitely lost some of its capacity to scare us.

All right, Virgin Trains, no need to gloat…

Quite amazingly, in my view, Virgin Trains managed to get me to and from Birmingham International earlier this week without any delays either way. Even as I write this several days later I can hardly believe it. However I will not let them rest on their laurels as I have to travel with them again at the end of March, and the next time there will be connections with another train company involved, so far more scope for things to go horribly wrong.

Birmingham International
Birmingham International – a Virgin station

One thing I hadn’t realised until I was waiting for my train on the way back is that Birmingham International is actually a Virgin station. In spite of that I like it much more than Birmingham New Street, where you have to descend into the depths to get to the platforms, there are trains arriving and departing every few seconds in all directions, and (the last time I was there anyway) you have to walk miles to get to the taxis. From Birmingham International you can easily access the airport, the NEC and various hotels, some of which have their own lake, as well as being able to walk straight from the station to the very visible taxi rank. Apart from the airport and NEC and lake, it’s like the difference between Edinburgh Waverley and Haymarket, although I see that following my last rant at Network Rail about the difficulty of finding a taxi at Waverley they have painted a massive ‘TAXIS’ sign on the side of an escalator there. In case anyone is due to arrive at Waverley late in the evening and is tempted to follow the massive sign, I wouldn’t advise doing so as it leads to a dark deserted street where you don’t really want to wait on your own. Instead it’s best to take the lifts and/or escalators up to Princes Street and get a taxi from the front of the Balmoral Hotel.

Lake outside NEC
Lake with temporary pontoon walkway
Birmingham International station
Birmingham International station again

Oh, the irony…

This will be a very quick post but it could be seen as the prologue to at least two others.

Following my rant about Virgin Trains in the previous post, I have now been forced by circumstance to book two more journeys with them. One is to Birmingham towards the end of this month, for work and the other to Wales around the end of March. My risk assessment tells me the second will be trickier, because it involves a connection at Warrington with another train company’s services. But watch this space to find out the horrid details…

To make up for these two potential fiascos, I have begun to plan a birthday outing (in April) to the Bo’ness and Kinneill Steam Railway, where I believe the station buildings from Wormit which we could see from our house throughout my childhood have been reconstituted. I’m not really one of these people who would like to return to the age of steam, as I remember the trains being a lot dirtier, smellier and more uncomfortable in those days, but the occasional trip down memory lane is a different matter.

Alternative routes

I may have mentioned before how much I don’t like Virgin Trains. This morning came the terrible news that they (and Stagecoach) have been awarded the East Coast franchise. I am despondent about my chances of ever getting out of Scotland by rail again now that they have a monopoly. I have worked out a tentative alternative route by coach to Newcastle, ferry to Amsterdam and train and Eurostar from there to London, which in some cases may turn out to be quicker than waiting for a Virgin Train. There may also be a possible emergency backup route by Cairnryan with ferry to Belfast, train to Dublin and ferry to somewhere in Wales, but that does seem a bit far-fetched even by my standards.

Newcastle station
Newcastle station

I suppose I should try to explain my aversion to Virgin Trains. This is the result of a few really bad experiences of using them, ranging from relatively minor things like being trapped in an overheated coach on a hot day and being harangued by a Virgin employee about joining a Harry Potter reading group, to the train not turning up at all.

I can’t really decide which was the worst of these two cases of train not turning up (votes on a postcard). On the first occasion my son and I were heading from Edinburgh to Charmouth in Dorset. The train was supposed to take us from Edinburgh to (I think) Axminster. However when we got to Waverley station the train had been cancelled. A hapless Virgin employee got all the passengers to board a different train but that one only took us as far as Carstairs. Anyone who has travelled to Edinburgh from Birmingham, Wales etc will know it as the station next to the state mental hospital, where the trains always stop for a while, especially if it’s dark, when the image of escaped murderers surrounding and boarding the train usually pops into my mind. Our train then left with the Virgin employee calling to us cheerily out of the window, ‘Just get on the next train that comes along.’ There was nothing else to do but follow his instructions, unless we really wanted to spend the rest of the day on the platform at Carstairs. Instead we spent the rest of the day travelling through the country in several stages, occasionally getting advice on where to head for next but more often making it up as we went along. We ended up in an exhausted state at our caravan in Charmouth some time later, more by luck than judgement after a journey that used four trains, a taxi and a camper van belonging to a complete stranger whose sister we met on one of the four trains.

After that we tried to avoid Virgin Trains for a while. However the day came when we gave them another chance. This time we were ‘only’ heading for Crewe, which I naively thought would be an easy place to get to by train from almost anywhere. Once again the Virgin train was cancelled. This time the company helpfully laid on a coach to take us from Edinburgh to Carlisle, where we arrived soon after the last train to Crewe had departed. We boarded the only remaining train going south that day, which was for Wigan. At around midnight we found ourselves in a taxi haring along the M6 from Wigan to Crewe in a thunderstorm. I felt so lucky actually to arrive at Crewe in one piece that it seemed almost unfair to complain that the journey had taken approximately 7 hours instead of the 3 hours it was meant to take.

To add insult to injury, Eurostar, who were also apparently in the running to take over the East Coast route, today sent me a picture of their new style trains with free wi-fi throughout, bigger seats and overall loveliness. If only…