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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some things I’ve learned during my week’s travel by train and ferry:
Make sure you always have some food and drink with you before you get on the train – even if it’s more than you thought you could carry. I was lulled into a sense of false security by my experiences on East Coast trains, and forgot this temporarily. I’m not sure if my tastebuds will ever recover from the shock of the Deutsche Bahn cheese sandwich.
Leading on from the first point, the catering arrangements on trains will hardly ever match what’s available at stations – especially at Brussels Midi and Stockholm Central. So it’s worth either stocking up on supplies as you change trains or eating if you have time between connections.
Talking of connections reminds me of my next point, which is that the longer you have between trains the better. On long distance trips, there is a good chance of delay somewhere. I am particularly over-cautious about this so I recommend at least two hours for connections, and even then an overnight stop is sometimes better. There were several occasions on my recent travels when I had less than an hour in hand, and I didn’t enjoy either running up the steps to the next platform in Brussels with all my luggage because the escalator had broken down and there was only ten minutes to spare, or arriving in Copenhagen half an hour after my train to Stockholm had departed.
This leads neatly on to the need to prepare before going away. I don’t mean preparing in the sense of making sure you have your passport and toothbrush with you, but in the sense of thinking about what to do in certain scenarios. I remember someone once asking me why I always expected things to go wrong with journeys, and I suppose it was because of past travel experiences. So although I didn’t have an exact plan for getting to Helsinki when I was stranded in Malmo and had missed my ferry, I had researched the different ferry options beforehand and knew there was a chance of catching the ship that sailed right into Helsinki instead of to Turku. For some reason it was always the connection in Copenhagen that worried me most when I was planning the journey, perhaps because it wasn’t even suggested by the Man in Seat 61! I think perhaps my final travel tip should be not to use routes or options not described in detail on his website.
However, my final tip instead is to try and relax and enjoy yourself, no matter what happens along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to do this after you’ve been travelling for 48 hours and things start to go wrong when the end seems to be in sight. But people will generally be a lot more helpful if you’re not shouting at them. (This could be a good tip for life too.)
As usual I’ve made my plan with the help of one of my favourite websites: The Man in Seat 61 (http://www.seat61.com/).
He suggests several routes from the UK to Finland. I did flirt with the idea of travelling most of the way by ferry (from Travemunde or Rostock) before remembering that I’m not very fond of sea travel, even in a relatively sheltered sea like the Baltic. I even considered using one of the routes to get there and another coming back, but in the end that was one complication too far and I settled for the option that should in theory have got me there in 48 hours but which because I’ve had to schedule in 2 overnight stops will take 3 days on the way and 2 on the way back.
The first step for me of course is usually to get to London, a trip which I booked via the Trainline website (http://www.thetrainline.com/) because I find it simpler to use than any of the other UK rail websites. I didn’t actually book this stage first as I had to book on Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) before knowing what time that train would leave and working out my connection in London. I booked through to Cologne on the Eurostar website. In theory I might have been able to book through from Edinburgh to Cologne, but I’ve found from past experience that this doesn’t allow for different requirements on the different trains, and occasionally the site makes weird decisions about connecting times.
Cologne was the point where the 48 hour plan went wrong, in the sense that I couldn’t get a berth on the overnight sleeper from there to Copenhagen, which in turn meant I couldn’t get to Stockholm in time for the following night’s ferry to Finland. Still, there are advantages in the way things have worked out. I get to spend a night in Cologne, for a start, and also to travel from there to Copenhagen during the day, a journey which apparently includes a section where the train drives on to a ferry – there are various videos online about it including this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iMdjnQ2IUg
(I’m not yet sure if I will be adding to the total video footage devoted to this when I get back!)
So after my night in Cologne and a very early start in the morning from a hotel very close to, if not actually inside the station, I travel from there to Copenhagen (booking via Deutsche Bahn – www.bahn.com) by mid-afternoon, then change trains rather more quickly than I would have liked to go on to Stockholm (booking via Swedish Railways – http://www.sj.se/). This is where my preliminary viewing of ‘The Bridge’ comes in, although I’m not sure I’ve really picked up enough Danish and Swedish from it to get by!
I am due to spend the night in Stockholm and travel on to Turku (Finland) in the morning by Viking Line ferries. There is a final train journey from Turku to Helsinki (booked via Finnish Railways – http://www.vr.fi/en/).