Category Archives: Stations

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!

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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.

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 Sleepy Hollow to the heart of Europe

The station at Llandudno, in North Wales, must be a contender for the title of Sleepiest Station in Britain. When we arrived there in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon in late March the station buildings were completely closed up, we had to use a side exit and there were no taxis so we had to phone for one.

On the plus side, we arrived there exactly on time despite having had to travel with Virgin Trains from Edinburgh to Warrington. (We were also on time on the return journey but I have not yet got over the deep mistrust of VT described in a previous post).
During our stay in Llandudno I also sampled the Great Orme tramway, which I suspect could be called a railway as it is operated by a funicular system, although I don’t know much about the engineering details, and the trams are not much like trains.

Great Orme tram
Great Orme tram

In a sort of cut-down re-run of last year’s rail travel extravaganza, I’m currently planning to go to Berlin and back via VT east coast, Eurostar, Thalys and Deutsche Bahn. I’m sure there is plenty of scope for things to go wrong with at least part of the journey! So come back here at the end of June for all the drama and tantrums.

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

The Gaelic invasion – Edinburgh to Pitlochry

I recently travelled from Edinburgh to Glasgow by train – the first time for a while – and was surprised to see so much Gaelic on the station signs. In fact every station name except Croy had its alleged Gaelic equivalent under its name. I say ‘alleged’ because I don’t know any Gaelic, like at least 95 per cent of the population in my part of Scotland. The day we have bilingual road signs as well is the day I carry out my longstanding threat to retire to the Isle of Wight.

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Today I write this on a train from Edinburgh to Pitlochry and I’ve looking at the station names to see how far Gaelic has infiltrated. So far Fife seems to be quite ambivalent – Markinch has been translated, but not Kirkcaldy or Ladybank – come on, you Gaelic aficionados, surely that can’t be too difficult.
Whenever I travel on this route, which isn’t very often, I think of journeys years ago in this part of Fife, when there was evidence of the mining industry all around us. We always seemed to have to change at Thornton Junction and very often it was so cold that we were glad of the tiny amount of heat given out by the old-fashioned round stove in the waiting room there.
Perth is also a bulwark against Gaeldom, but of course by the time we reach Pitlochry it begins to have a more authentic air. To make up for this, Pitlochry has one of the prettiest and best-kept stations I know of. It fits right into the pretty and well-kept town.

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The Third Forth Bridge

I saw the Third Forth Bridge for the first time yesterday. It’s hard to get a good picture of it from the rail bridge but here’s my best effort.

Three Forth Bridges
Three Forth Bridges

It shows how over-engineered the rail bridge is, with its massive structure. Beyond it is the original road (suspension) bridge and beyond that again are a couple of pillars for the new bridge – one at the far right of the picture just visible under the existing road bridge.

The purpose of the trip wasn’t to admire bridges or stations or anything, but I couldn’t help being impressed by the improvements to Edinburgh’s Haymarket station, where I got on the train. Not only does it now have a huge concourse with automatic ticket machines and better information displays, but I found on my return it actually has an escalator up from one of the platforms! Maybe I’m getting unreasonably excited by this development – I think it’s a throwback to the time when we first visited London as a family and my brother and I were more interested in the long escalators at the deep underground stations than in anything else, including Hamley’s toy shop.

Haymarket station
Edinburgh – Haymarket station

The reason for my trip was to go to a family reunion in Dunfermline, where my mother’s family were from. Most of the people at the reunion were descended from a coal-miner in Dunfermline in 1672. Needless to say none of the participants are still involved in coal-mining these days, and some have even escaped to America, Canada and Australia.

What I always forget about Dunfermline until I go back there is that everywhere is uphill. The station, which is now called Dunfermline Town but which I think must have been the one that was called Dunfermline Lower (there was an ‘Upper’ station too but it seems to have vanished), is at a lower level than the town centre, the glen and almost everything else in the older part of the town, apart from the street where my great-granny lived, which is just behind the station and runs parallel to the railway line.

The town, however, is very pretty and historic, and well worth seeing, even if you don’t have a family reunion to go to.

The Abbot House
The Abbot House
Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall

If I never travel with Deutsche Bahn again it will be too soon…

12th June: OK – if I’ve ever complained about the UK railways, I apologise wholeheartedly. Not to Virgin Trains, obviously, as none of the other European companies has so far abandoned me on the platform at Carstairs with a shouted instruction to  ‘get on the next train that comes along’ although on my DB trip last Saturday they came close, only it was at Copenhagen not Carstairs.

I write this part of the post on a DB train that was supposed to take me to Cologne in a first class sleeping compartment, but not only did my coach not appear with the rest of the train in Copenhagen, apparently because of the after-effects of bad storms in the north of Germany, but the train isn’t going to Cologne at all. I’ve managed to find a couchette somewhere + the conductor has ‘promised’ to throw me out on the platform at Dortmund at five o’clock in the morning, from where I am desperately hoping they might still get me to Brussels in time to catch my Eurostar connection. As they will only have about 7 hours to do that, in the morning, I don’t think I’ll be holding my breath.
And by the way, I won’t be able to post this for a while because there’s no WiFi on the train and all my gadgets are running out of power as there are no power points. Also I have had to ingest another of DB’s nasty cheese, mayonnaise and gherkin sandwiches and will probably be unable to sleep. I know from past experience it’s almost impossible to sleep in a couchette anyway.

In the morning  – 13th June.
So far, so good. I lulled myself to sleep after a while by devising a contest to find the worst train operator in Europe, but I couldn’t make up my mind if the honour would go to Virgin Trains or Deutsche Bahn. Will have to think that through later.
I think I may be on my way to Cologne now, although of course it’s hard to tell.
A little later – yes, this seems to be Cologne. Cathedral just outside the station, check. Starbucks on the square, check. Lack of functional public WiFi, check. I still quite like Cologne, and at least I seem to be here in plenty of time for my connection to Brussels. You may detect a note of uncertainty in my tone. That’s because almost every train on the departures board here is showing delays or reduced numbers of coaches.

A little later again… waiting for Eurostar at Brussels Midi. The thalys train got us here from Cologne very smoothly. I’ve checked in before almost everyone else so came through passport + customs in no time. I just couldn’t face the stress of hanging around in yet another station wondering if I was in the right place or not. At least with Eurostar it’s all so formal that you can’t really go wrong – but I might yet find a way. Just eaten a great piece of quiche in one of the station cafes – no weird cheese and gherkin sandwiches here.
An hour or two later: in the tunnel.
Another hour or so later that same day: back to the splendour of East Coast first class travel.
There may be more railway pics later once I collate the results from all my devices.

Dortmund station
Dortmund station, around 5 a.m.