Category Archives: Trains

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.

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

 

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!

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.

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.