The only way to fly

Is, to paraphrase Westlife (you may like to imagine me standing up from a high stool at this point), without wings.  I am not suggesting that I possess some gravity-cancelling gizmo, but would merely posit that it is far better, to quote a marketing message from years gone by, to let the train take the strain.

Earlier in the week, I made the journey from Fish Towers to the Scottish capital city and seat of government, Edinburgh.  Living close to Stansted, with a little planning I could no doubt have flown very cheaply – or at least, apparently very cheaply, before the cost of such optional extras as check-in, luggage, actually paying for the flight, engines on the plane, a pilot etc were mysteriously added to the cost of my journey.  Instead, by using a considerably greater amount of planning and a detailed knowledge of the vagaries of UK rail ticketing (a subject which could probably form the basis of a rather challenging degree course), I was able to make the journey using the railways at a fairly reasonable cost.

In fact, I was able to make the journey in the relatively sumptuous surroundings of a First Class carriage.  For most of the trip, this upgrade allowed me improved legroom and a more comfortable and reclinable chair.  However, from Peterborough there was another – to me, entirely unexpected – bonus.

The East Coast Main Line has been through a degree of upheaval in recent years, and I believe is effectively nationalised at the moment.  As part of its move back (albeit briefly) into State ownership, the exterior of the rolling stock is being re-painted in the most hideous livery yet attempted on our liberalised railways.  The new paint-job has a pale silvery-grey background with a horizontal stripe and writing in the shade of purple normally only associated with an alcoholic’s nose.  I can only hope that this paint was going very cheap, perhaps left-over from some earlier government project, rather than that we (either the taxpayers or rail users) are paying good money for it.  Or perhaps, after all these years, every pleasing colour-combination has already been used and companies are having to use increasingly outré chromatic combinations from the furthest reaches of the Dulux colour-card.

In addition, the East Cost line recently garnered publicity (of a not entirely positive nature) when it discontinued the restaurant car service on its trains.  As a result, my hopes for snacking on the train were not high – and I had even gone so far as to prepare a packed lunch before leaving home.  How wrong I was!  Within 5 minutes of sitting down, I had already been offered a glass of orange juice and a danish pastry (an offer I was all to happy to accept).  For the rest of my journey, barely 15 minutes passed where I wasn’t provided with some new comestible item, or a beverage to ease their passage through my digestive tract.  Even better, all of this nourishment was complimentary – included within the modest cost of my ticket.  Even I, a man often accused of harbouring a tapeworm, could not have asked for more food – and that is not a sentence I get to use very often! The contrast with the offerings of our soi-disant low-cost airlines was striking.

One of the other great joys of rail travel, when I can tear my attention away from my stomach and its provisioning, is to stare out of the windows and watch the British countryside roll past.  Whilst the eastern side of the UK is not, perhaps, known for its exciting scenery – there are no great mountain ranges, canyons or cataracts – you do get to see a range of UK electricity generation facilities, cross four major rivers beginning with the letter ‘T’ and to see the sea.  As a result, I can confirm that Great Britain remains a green (and gold, at this time of the year) and pleasant land – if rather well stocked with rosebay willowherb (a plant I can only assume was introduced from North America given the fact that it has four – count ’em – four first names!).

After a slight platform shortage at York station – a place I had always considered to be very generously provided with train parking – my train ran a little late and we finally arrived into Waverley (you’ll have had your tea) some 3 minutes after the timetable suggested.  The level of apology this occasioned was extraordinary – as was the assistance to ensure that no-one missed their relatively tight onward connection to Inverness. Again, the contrast with the airlines was palpable – these never mention lateness at all, but boast to the heavens if the plane lands on time (or even early).  This boasting is despite the minutes (often tens of minutes) of taxiing that follows landing before one can disembark – and the fact that you then have a serious hike to escape the airport and a further, often extended, journey into the city which is your destination.  With my train, on the other hand, the instant we ‘arrived’ we had actually arrived and I could climb down into the heart of Auld Reekie.

Why would you travel any other way?  Truly (as I may have said before), if the Good Lord had meant us to fly he wouldn’t have given us the railways!

6 thoughts on “The only way to fly

  1. matathew says:

    I enjoyed (given the context of wasting money) the reference in para 5 to the East Cost line.

    Whilst I agree entirely with your sentiments that rail travel is to be preferred to flying, my own efforts to get to Edinburgh by train suggest that it isn’t necessarily the breeze you suggest.

    Problem 1 for me is the “if I wanted to get there I wouldn’t from here” problem. Even though I live in the most densely populated corner of England, they have inconsiderately put London in the way. Until they build a north-south “Crossrail”, or expand the FirstCapitalConnect concept, crossing London and changing trains makes the rail option surprisingly slow, even when assuming two hours for check-in with the air option.

    Problem 2 was that when I wanted to book my ticket (well in advance, naturally) I discovered that advance booking for rail (which gives you a chance of getting a fare which compares with air travel) doesn’t become available until (okay I exaggerate) the last minute. So I found I was faced with not knowing whether I would be able to book a ticket at the discounted rate. No such faffing around with booking an air ticket.

    Result: instead of travelling via Stoke Summit (and, incidentally, Hatfield and Potters Bar), I will be getting there (d.v.) via an altitude of 35,000 feet.

  2. Stuart Ffoulkes says:

    I would agree that rail travel isn’t always the most rapid option, though as my current (just feel that pun) reading is “Three Men in a Float”, the story of a trip from Lowestoft to Land’s End in an electrically-powered milk float of some vintage, I am coming round to the benefits of “slow travel”.

    Train ticketing generally becomes available 12 weeks before the event (you can obtain email alerts, though I have never entirely trusted these) – which is when regulation requires timetables to be fixed. Surely, this uncertainty adds a frisson of excitement to the booking process? Airlines don’t have quite the same issue and have rather more flexibility to change (or remove) your intended flight long after you’ve booked it.

    My return journey will be via London as that offered better value, but given the privileged location of my domestic idyll within these sceptred isles, this is less of an imposition than it might be. The problem with not travelling via London is that I have to change train three times before reaching Peterborough (which allowed people-watching at both Cambridge and Ely stations – there were some really terrible bikes on display): they like to make you suffer in return for low fares (the same principle seemed to be in use by the airlines when I used my AirMiles a few years back). However, I don’t feel that I have too much room for complaint as the journey to Peterborough was very nearly free – or, at least had zero incremental cost over the Peterborough to Edinburgh leg – and it did allow me to sample the hospitality of three different rail operating companies and their varied rolling stock (Class 379 EMUs have particularly comfy seating for the more affluent traveller).

    So, my advice to the nation is: Go slow!

  3. matathew says:

    Sorry, it’s me again. My earlier comment should of course read “if I wanted to get there I wouldn’t start from here”.

    But there was another point I had intended to make. You mention that the level of apology this occasioned was extraordinary and I am reminded that this can be the “bane of the trains” — excessive use of the PA system (either in manual or automatic recorded mode) for spurious, repetitive and highly irritating announcements. There is only one that really annoys me on aircraft, viz “we will shortly be commencing our sale of over-priced pointless tat” or something of that sort.

  4. Semibreve says:

    Being at something of a loose end in the half hour before lunch, I thought I would look up on that well-designed website, National Rail Enquiries, how to get from sunny Sussex by the Sea to the frozen north. It started by telling me that I should change at Clapham Junction for Vauxhall and thence tube to Kings Cross. Why not take First Cattle Connect to St Pancras, I wondered? Telling it to include Farringdon [ZFD in rail parlance – what’s with the Z?] in my journey, the wonderful website agreed that I could take a train from the elegant curve of Brighton’s railway station straight to one of the capital’s most stunning edifices – and possibly the most beautiful railway station building in the country – and then walk to Kings Cross for my train to Edinburgh. My knowledge of the geography of our capital city is patchy in places but I’m not entirely sure why National Rail Enquiries’ website thinks it will take 31 minutes to walk from STP to KGX.

  5. Stuart Ffoulkes says:

    Ah yes, rail tannoy-speak – which appears to use a version of the English language quite unlike that practised in any other environment (even this blog). It did seem rather less immanent during my recent journey than on previous occasions – or maybe the happiness occasioned by a full stomach just left me less prone to irritability. But, let’s be positive and assume that the mocking of such announcements by the McIntyre-school of comedian is finally having an effect.

  6. Stuart Ffoulkes says:

    The silent ‘Z’ in Zfarringdon has fallen into dis-use in spelling in recent years, and now is rarely seen – so it is nice to see it is retained (fossilised even) in the three-letter station code.

    There is a significant art to forcing the National Rail Enquiries website to produce a sensible routing and decent value ticketing. I have never been able to make it provide sensible transfer times – I assume the standard tuning is designed to ensure that even an arthritic slug with no sense of direction can make connections. Oddly, for my most recent journey, it provided only a 6 minute transfer time at Cambridge station – a time which would be challenging even for me to stride from Platform 2 to Platform 5 during the rush hour (against the flow), and which left no room for even mild delay on the incoming service. However, this scheduling was very much an exception to the more general rule.

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