Category Archives: UK

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

 

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…

A ‘Belle’ plans her return to Brighton

This is an early warning that I expect to be blogging once again from the comfort of my first class compartment on East Coast trains over the weekend as I make my way to Brighton for a work meeting. This is a walk down memory lane in a way, as I was born in Brighton, although in another way there is very little memory involved because I left there when I was four to move to the frozen north.

A street in Brighton
On the street where I lived

Here’s our old street in Brighton, complete with mock-Tudor houses. The last time I was there, I walked along past our old house, but was afraid of being arrested if I stopped to take a picture of the actual house, so I can only divulge that it was the last one, just visible at the end. Our garden backed on to farmland at the time when we lived there.

I’ve managed to book myself on one of the journeys where you don’t have to cross London to Victoria to catch a Brighton train, instead walking along from King’s Cross to St Pancras where nowadays you can catch a train all the rest of the way without changing again. I will try and capture a photograph of the murky depths of the lower level of St Pancras where you have to wait for the Brighton train.

I don’t have any other travel tips, except that as usual I advise people to travel first class if possible so that they can take advantage of the constant supply of coffee and light refreshments. And make a start on their NaNoWrimo novel if they are mad  lucky enough to be writing one this November.