Category Archives: railways

Travel made easy

Back from Brighton a couple of days ago.

That’s kind-of more newsworthy than a simple journey should be.  Travel to Brighton has been disrupted, first by a lot of general disruption on Southern Railways, and more recently by strikes adding to travel problems.  Brighton’s commuters have a lot of horror stories about their troubles.

By planning my journey at specific times of day, I can travel from here to Brighton on just two trains, both operated by First Group, and changing at Westbury.  So I can easily avoid the disrupted trains.  However, that puts me on a short train of just three coaches for the Westbury-Brighton journey.  And from Southampton, it’s a stretch served also by much longer Southern trains, many of them eight coaches.  So the worry was that my train might be overwhelmed with refugees from disrupted Southern services.

So I took a few precautions.  I booked in advance, and avoided not just any Southern services, but also their strike days.  Booking in advance still seems to be a nightmare, but I eventually managed.  Phew!

Come the actual travel, everything is far better than I’d dared hope.  Not only are the trains running smoothly and on-time, but I find I have ample space to spread out.  Indeed, a double-seat to myself throughout both outward and return journeys.  Even in January low season, that’s unusual!

I can only infer that the news of disruption has driven potential passengers away.  People with a choice about it are avoiding travel, not merely in the regions affected by disruption, but also on the mainline service from London to southwest England, well clear of the disruption.  All the better for those of us who do travel!

GWR

I made my first longer journey of the year a week ago (Saturday).  All very smooth, and at this time of year the number of people travelling is relatively modest, so there’s ample space to spread out a bit on the train.  Unlike a few years ago when Saturdays were more expensive and at risk of disruption, it’s now the ideal day to travel, as it’s the only day the 10:44 from Plymouth stops at Westbury and makes a relatively decent connection for the south coast line.

As soon as the train pulled in, something was different.  The livery has changed!  Getting on, everything’s been reupholstered in a new colour scheme.  The seats seem a little harder than before.  It’s neither better nor worse than before (hmm, OK, the new headrests may be a tiny improvement), just different.  As if the franchise on the line had changed without me hearing of it and a new operator had re-branded it.  Looking for branding, I find “GWR”, the common name of Brunel’s original railway between London, west and southwest England, and Wales (being an abbreviation of Great Western Railway).

I get out the ‘phone to google for what’s going on.  Turns out it is indeed still FirstGroup, and they’re carrying out a major rebranding exercise.  It’s  a work in progress: the other train (Westbury-Brighton) still sported the old FGW colours, as did both trains on my return journey on Wednesday.

Alas, whoever is responsible for the rebranding is evidently not a user of the service.  For surely no actual user would have failed to take the opportunity to fix the huge, glaring defect on these trains: namely, the critical shortage of luggage space.  The overhead racks are far too small for anything beyond a coat or commuter’s briefcase, and the rack provided at the end of the carriage is inevitably overfilled by the time there are enough passengers to occupy just 20% of the seats.

Until fairly recently, much of the seating was in groups of four around a table (trains are still like that on some lines).  That left lots of spaces for luggage such as my backpack between pairs of back-to-back seats.  Rearranging the seats and losing the back-to-backs lost the vast majority of the luggage space we used to enjoy.  We desperately need a replacement!

Idiots.

Cut off!

It seems the southwest is very largely cut off from the rest of England.  And now it’s indefinite!

The main railway line across Somerset has been closed for some time, along with many roads.  An inconvenience, but at least an alternative (much slower, single-track) line to London remains open.  But now the serious problem has happened: the Dawlish/Teignmouth coastal stretch has dramatically collapsed.  The BBC has some footage of it here, showing the waves crashing over what remains of the line.  Right now they’re apparently not even running replacement buses: conditions on the roads are challenging too.

This has long been a disaster waiting to happen: that stretch is surely not maintainable (as many of us, including Yours Truly, have long been saying).  Time to get that alternative Exeter-Plymouth line North and West of Dartmoor reinstated, not in many years but as a matter of urgency!

Contrarian Travel

Our rail companies regularly do line maintenance and engineering work at weekends and holiday periods, when much of their market – above all commuters – is quiet.  Works often mean diversion and delays, so for some years I’ve (wherever possible) avoided weekend rail travel.

This christmas/new year period is no exception: they’ve taken advantage of it to conduct some major works.  But what has changed in the last couple of years is that the online timetables now take account of all planned disruption.  So we can now plan a journey with reasonable confidence.  If your journey is shown as running normally, it’s because you’re unaffected by works, not (as before) because the timetable is a work of hopeful fiction.  My main reason to avoid weekend/holiday travel is nullified.

Other disruption is alas less predictable, and our recent weather has provided it.  It’s been warm, wet and windy, and storm damage has led to disruption that the timetables cannot generally deal with.  To their credit, national rail now make very creditable efforts to provide up-to-date information about unscheduled disruption such as weather, too. Today[1]’s weather forecast was – correctly – for more heavy rain and strong but not extreme wind.

So I embarked on the long journey home hoping for the best but prepared for the worst.  Taking the first train of the morning at 7 a.m. at least leaves plenty of time.  While not at risk of overcrowding, the early train was much busier than I had expected at that hour on New Years Day, and happily it was perfectly on time.  The second train was less busy, and also perfectly on time.  Disruption?  What disruption?

The third and longest leg is the intercity route from London to Southwest England, which I joined at Westbury.  Westbury is always a miserable station to wait at, and today’s weather certainly didn’t help when the train arrived something over ten minutes late, on top of the twenty minutes scheduled change.  But once on the train I was compensated by the luxury of a nearly-empty carriage, and I accepted the explanation that it had been slowed for safety reasons.  If there’s a landslip or a tree down on the line, you don’t want to hit it at 200Km/h!  Later there was another stretch where we again slowed to a crawl.  15 minutes or so late in Plymouth, but one can’t blame them in the circumstances.  My sister-in-law took nearly as long to travel one third of the distance by road!

What really impressed me was how the train passed through flooded areas.  Extensive surface flooding on the Somerset Levels approaching Taunton was deep enough for the wind to whip up crested waves, and at a higher level than the tracks.  Yet (presumably) by some miracle of engineering, the tracks themselves were clear of floodwater and the train was able to pass the stretch at speed.

Fortunately (and because I’d checked the tide tables) we passed the coastal stretch around Dawlish/Teignmouth at low tide.  A few hours later those stormy-weather waves would’ve been breaking over both the track and the train.

[1] [I fell asleep writing this.  Just returned to it Jan. 3rd, but read Jan.1st for “today”.]

Railway Consultation

Devon County Council are running a consultation today about proposals for a new branch-line railway connecting Tavistock to Plymouth.  There’s a whole lot more to it than that: it’s tied up with a proposal to build the biggest development of all of new houses which, coming on top of what’s recently been built will see Tavistock’s population rise by 40-50% since the 2001 census.  There are linked proposals for a new cycle route, though that won’t go anywhere very useful and will only really serve any purpose if it persuades more parents to let their kiddies cycle to school.

Anyway, the main topic is the new railway, to be built from Tavistock to Bere Alston where it joins the existing Tamar Valley line.  That scenic line serves areas which are quite cut-off by road due to local geography, a consideration that doesn’t apply to Tavistock where we have a decent road, an excellent bus service to Plymouth, and a selection of buses to other destinations.  Much of this line will follow a section of the old route that was closed in 1968.

I’ve now sent them a detailed response, which for posterity I’ll reproduce here.  I may add footnotes for blog readers who don’t have the local knowledge assumed in my response.

Q2: Proposed Railway Tavistock – Bere Alston – Plymouth:

It is difficult to answer the question as posed, because there is insufficient context. Specifically, what consequences flow from acceptance or rejection of the line. Two questions in particular need to be addressed:

  1. Is it likely that rejection of the railway would imply major road projects, such as widening the A386? If it were a choice between spending similar money on either the one or the other (with no option not to spend it) then I would definitely favour the railway.
  2. Might the railway be extended to provide a through route to Okehampton and Exeter[1]? If so this becomes a project for the entire region, and potentially a long-term national-scale solution to the problems of the existing line where the coastal stretch around Dawlish/Teignmouth[2] is surely not going to be maintainable. I would strongly support that project.

Answering the question in isolation and without the above context:

Firstly, I would use the rail service myself. I would find it particularly useful to be able to use a through ticket when travelling to destinations outside the local area. However, this is a very marginal utility, and could be served in other ways (of which more below).

However, the proposal as it stands is surely a White Elephant. We have an excellent bus service serving many popular destinations in Plymouth that will not be touched by the proposed rail service[3]. It seems inconceivable that a single-track railway will compete with a bus service that runs up to four times an hour, and can get me home after an evening in Plymouth[4].

Congestion on the A386 may be a problem, but that begs the question: if motorists aren’t using the buses now, what are the chances they’ll use a train in future? They are making the choice to sit in traffic jams when an alternative already exists!

It is true the bus service has shortcomings:

  1. The buses have hard seats and are less than comfortable, especially when crowded.
  2. At peak times, the buses can get overcrowded in the Plymouth sections of the route, specifically between Roborough and the city centre. This is not a problem on the out-of-town (Tavistock-Roborough) stretch.
  3. Many of the buses, including frustratingly all evening services, take tortuously long routes “round the houses” into Plymouth. The diversion at Roborough hardly ever picks up or sets down passengers, and the diversion to Marjons and Derriford would surely be quicker to walk from the Tavistock Road for any able-bodied person. Does the hospital really run evening appointments for those patients for whom a short walk would be a problem?
  4. Buses cannot be used as part of integrated transport:
    1. There are no “through” tickets to combine bus travel with trains, city buses or other public transport.
    2. It is not possible to carry a bicycle on the buses. I have even been refused a folding bike that fits very comfortably alongside other things on the luggage rack and is always welcome on trains.

A new railway could address all of these problems. But so could an express bus (or coach) service with fewer stops, particularly in-town in Plymouth. Together with joined-up thinking on the subjects of through tickets, and carriage of bikes (at least folding ones – and drivers need to be aware of such a policy). It would surely make sense at least to trial such a service before spending substantial money on the proposed railway!

[1] This through route existed before 1968.  I’m told that Dr Beeching even recommended keeping it open as the main route between Exeter and Plymouth, but was overruled.
[2] This coastal stretch runs under a crumbling cliff that from time to time loses a chunk (as in this story – the railway is visible in the second and third pictures), and is so exposed to the sea that in high tide and rough weather the waves wash up right over the roof of a train.
[3] The train route will be ideal for commuting to the naval dockyards and for central Plymouth, but that’s about all.  The bus, by contrast, serves a number of Plymouth’s most important modern employment hubs.
[4] Timetable is here.

Fast train to where?

Government reveal plans to extend HS2 (the UK’s bid to install fast trains such as exist in more developed parts of Europe and Asia).  Fast trains from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

Since these are already among our fastest lines, one might suggest there are altogether more deserving candidates for major upgrade.  For example, lines between Southwest England and anywhere else are truly dire as soon as you get west of Exeter.  But they tell us this is more about capacity than speed, and outside of holiday season it’s true our lines are less overloaded than some of those serving the HS2 destinations.

What about the HS2 itself?  The HS2 destination with which I’m most familiar is Sheffield, where I lived and worked for some time.  Sheffield is one of the major cities of the industrial north, and will be served by the Leeds branch of HS2.

In my time there, Sheffield was the northern end of a mainline service via the East Midlands to London, and a station on the “cross country” mainline route from southwest England through Bristol and Birmingham, and north to York, Northeast England and Scotland.  What it lacked were comparable connections to nearby major cities: Manchester was a scenic but very secondary route through the Peak District, while the Leeds journey was ugly, slow and hideously uncomfortable.  Both routes were a sick joke in the context of the size and importance of the cities they link.

So at least the HS2 connection to Leeds should be a real and big improvement.  Except, it isn’t quite that.  The station won’t be in Sheffield city centre, it’ll be at Meadowhall, which is convenient for nothing but the motorway.  So that makes two journeys with a change at Meadowhall, which would seem to lose most of the benefit.  The East Midlands station looks even worse: a station midway between Nottingham and Derby serving bothneither city.

There are valid reasons to site airports in inconvenient out-of-town places.  Doing it with railway stations seems perverse, losing one of the major advantages of rail over air.  Will anyone really benefit in Sheffield, Nottingham or Derby?

Oh, erm, and what about the Nimbys?  Can’t blame them for kicking up a fuss: they’re laying down a marker for compensation.  But some of the commentators in the meeja (notably whinging MPs) are just beyond ridiculous.

Don’t they want my business?

How hard can it be to buy a train ticket?

I’ve been trying to buy in advance, to take advantage of cheaper advance fares.

First attempt: go to nationalrail.co.uk, enter details of my journey, select my trains.  It gives me a price, and I click to buy.  It offers a couple of options (forward or backward, window or aisle seat etc, no commitment on their part).

So far so good.  But then it takes me from nationalrail’s site to firstgreatwestern.co.uk for the actual purchase.  Except, FGW shows me the timetable for my selections, but tells me the journey I selected doesn’t exist!  Huh?  OK, click on my selected trains on the timetable, nothing happens.

Try again, same thing.

Try a different tack: start from the beginning on FGW site.  This time it takes me through to a point where it invites me to log in or register.  There is no option for what I want to do – just buy an effing ticket for the journey I’ve just selected, if you please!  Grrr … OK, let’s play along.

By the time I can log in, it’s telling me my journey doesn’t exist.  Again!

OK, google for other sites that’ll sell me a ticket (hope I don’t stumble on a fraud site).  thetrainline.com gives me the same journey and then the same effing login/registration crap: bugger that.  Raileasy and Railsaver both timeout trying to show me a timetable.

Finally I get to a site called mytrainticket.co.uk, which appears to work and after some annoying crap it presents my options rather nicely.  Only by now, the cost of my ticket has just doubled, and is no longer any cheaper than an open ticket.  It’s doubled at nationalrail, too – I guess all my queries have told their system this journey is in lots of demand 😦

At some point in all this I also tried ‘phoning FGW.  Even the bloomin’ ‘phone cut me off after I selected the “buy a ticket” option.  Is this managed by the same people as the website?

Grrr ….

On a separate note, I also had a look at travel to Brussels for FOSDEM.  I asked for a ticket from Plymouth through to Brussels, which was OK.  But then I also tried to see if it would let me book a package inclusive of hotel, after checking the place I’ve stayed in recent years and been less than enthused by this year’s price.  Eurostar’s site tells me it’s not possible to book a hotel because my journey starts in Plymouth!

Yeah, right.  If I’m travelling to Brussels on the Friday and returning to Plymouth on the Monday I must be wanting a hotel for three nights in [guess where]?  Here’s a clue: it’s the same as if my starting point had been London.  Evidently that guess is too difficult for Eurostar’s developer.

Bah, Humbug.