Crossrail

I am a regular user of the railways, though not – at the moment – a commuter.  Rare is the week that I do not make at least one, roughly-matched pair of journeys.  I do this rather than drive (or fly) largely (I fondly imagine) as a matter of personal preference.  However, having recently read Michael Sandel’s Justice, I have come to realise that it is also a political act – by using the train (or even the bus), I rub shoulders (and sometimes more) with my fellow members of society and so interact with the full breadth of UK social class (all the way from standard to first) – an experience which is largely avoided by those who drive everywhere, (in)secure in their own private “bubble”.  Emboldened by my unintended political engagement and the recent news, I thought I’d be more overtly political about the railways.

In recent weeks, the government has produced a new “initiative” (one of depressingly many) that what is holding the north back is the transit time by rail between its major cities.  Now, I will admit that Trans-Pennine Express is a good description of the train’s route, but is rather optimistic about its pace (unless one is a geologist).  Nevertheless, I am somewhat sceptical that knocking 10 minutes off the transit time between Manchester and Leeds will create a new tiger economy in the lee of the M62.  However, the output from this government “tank” (which I presume is what remains once we has extracted any thought from a think tank) is that faster trains in the distant future is what is needed to revitalise the north.

I travel around the north by rail quite rarely, but I follow several people on Twitter who are regular users.  Now, I will readily admit that this sample has not been selected with the sort of rigour expected of a regular listener to More-or-Less – but remains interesting anecdotally.  I have yet to see any users of TPE complaining about the speed of service – but many complaints about the lack of seating and excess of unreliability.  The same story applies to Northern Rail – which, from what I read, must have taken its mission statement from one (or more) of Dante’s nine circles of hell (or perhaps the franchise is being operated by agoraphobic sardines?).  I would be willing to go out on a limb (statistically) and suggest that for the majority of northern rail users, some extra rolling stock and some decent maintenance tomorrow would be far more appreciated than standing for a slightly shorter period of time in a decade or two.  It would also be much quicker and cheaper to deliver.  One is left to ponder for whose benefit is the government intervening in the operation of the railway?  It would seem not to be either the passenger or tax payer – so who?

This question was brought into sharper focus today with the news about East Coast.  I have been a very regular user of the East Coast Main Line, and still use it in preference to flying to Edinburgh (which would be both cheaper and faster).  East Coast – the current state-owned operators – seem have made a decent fist of running it.  Not quite a return to the glory days of GNER, but a far better job than almost any other rail franchise.  I have seen much Twitter traffic praising East Cost and looking with horror on its replacement – which is not something you saw with the end of the First Capital Connect franchise (to take but a single example).  On the whole East Coast seems to be viewed somewhat favourably by its users – but this holds little sway with our political masters.  Once again, the government makes clear by its actions (rather than its empty rhetoric) that the railway is clearly not there to serve its customers.  It would seem to be there to deliver a hefty “bribe” to the Treasury (£3.3 billion – or 3.5 years of work from East Coast) and to enrich the shareholders of Virgin and Stagecoach.  I found myself wondering how many passengers East Coast carries per year and how this compares to the number of UK-voting and tax-paying shareholders of Stagecoach and Virgin (combined).  I suspect the balance would lie heavily in the East Coast passengers favour.  I have limited experience of Virgin’s rail performance, though news from a while back suggests that it is at least better than First Group, but Stagecoach have little in the way of laurels to rest upon.  Indeed, so toxic is Stagecoach’s name considered that despite owning 90% of the company which has “won” the franchise, it will be the Virgin “brand” that will appear on the trains.  Leaving the appearance that all rail routes to Scotland are controlled by Virgin – so much for competition!  (Well, in the private sector anyway – it still seems to be full-steam ahead in the public sector.  Perhaps the NHS should start dropping sizeable “bungs” to the Treasury?).   Or is this a punishment for the Scots for having the temerity to almost leave the union?

It is perhaps ironic that in many cases the UK government is keen to dispose of our “loss-making” railways to companies owned by foreign governments, who then make substantial profits from them.  We seem to be keen to give our money away to the French, Dutch and Germans – swapping subsidising our own railways with subsidising those of our neighbours.  This is very European minded of us, and quite at odds with most of the rhetoric produced by the government in recent weeks.

Political parties seem to be casting around randomly for policies that might appeal to voters in the run up to next year’s General Election.  Might I suggest that with the exception of East Coast (and perhaps a couple of others), promising to replace the current rail franchise holders would be a major vote winner.  It would also be one which avoids overly strong parallels with the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany – which would make for a nice change.

In the meantime, I shall be reviewing my travel arrangements to Scotland – a slow boat, perhaps?

The age of the train

Would probably explain the state of the suspension – though it is a lot better than the HST I took north back in March.  Still, it does make my touching typing a tad less accurate than normal – well, I say “touch typing” by which I mean I “typing” which requires me to “touch” the keyboard (I have no handy dragon).

Nonetheless, rail is my preferred mode of travel for almost all occasions – frankly, the railways already having invented, I have no idea why Messers Benz and Wright bothered with the car and aeroplane respectively.  There are few things more pleasant, on a lovely day like today, than rushing north admiring the beautiful, if flat, countryside of the eastern UK as East Coast ply me with food and drink.  To be honest, the flatness of the country cannot be blamed on the weather and may be fixed in time – but only geological time so I’m unlikely to see the Lincolnshire Alps in my lifetime

 

Rail travel isn’t perfect, boarding at Peteborough you usually find the vegetarian cooked breakfast has run out, as today had the brown toast.  It would seem that folk are healthier than East Coast realises.  Nevertheless, I’d still recommend East Coast and today’s crew are particularly lovely.  In a week or so I shall be travelling with First Great Western (of whose name I believe one – and only one – adjective is generally believed to be an accurate description of their work) to another of the Celtic fringes of these Isles.  They provide a much less substantial free food offering to the First Class traveller and no wifi to any traveller – so I am enjoying the delights of East Coast while I can.

The rail traveller also has to keep his (or her or its – this blog does not discriminate against its neuter or hermaphrodite readers) wits about them.  I have written before about the low animal cunning need to obtain the best ticket prices for your journey.  A little while ago I went to Brighton from London and found (by chance) that I could pay £10, £16 or £25 for a return to travel on exactly the same trains – naturally, I went for the tenner option but I’m sure many had to pay £25.  This could be considered either an upside or downside of privatisation – depending on how much free time you have to devote to the purchase of rail tickets.

Last Monday I returned to Fish Towers from London relatively late in the evening.  After my recent experience, I checked the detailed stopping points for the train and discovered that once again Whittlesford Parkway (alone) was omitted from the usual roster.  I am beginning to think Greater Anglia have a vendetta against the denizens of Whittlesford and environs – perhaps one its burghers had been beastly to the Dutch in days of yore.  As before, there were no audible announcements of the omission and the matrix display on the train gave no clues (or none that I could discern).  Nor was it mentioned on any of the posters listing all the engineering work for the month of April  Still, I disembarked at Audley End in the hope of a replacement bus back to my velocipede.

I was in luck!  Greater Anglia had laid on a luxury (no, really) 49 seat coach to take me (and no-one else) back to Whittlesford (it then picked up the no-one waiting at Whittlesford and took them on to Cambridge).  I hate to think of the cost – and I really didn’t have time to make use of more than a very few of the seats.  The driver was great fun and he and I swapped stories of my childhood days as a bus spotter, discussing the buses of yesteryear.  This provided further confirmation of my advanced age as his employer runs several Leyland National buses – apparently, they are now considered historic vehicles and are taken to rallies. This really isn’t on.  I don’t think anything should be allowed to be considered historic until everyone who remembers them as new is safely interred ‘neath the clay.  There’s a vote winner for whichever political party has the courage to tackle this vital issue.

Still, despite the intimations of mortality, I really enjoyed my bus replacement service (oddly, the driver lived in Hastings and just worked in Essex) – I now want a luxury coach to pick me up whenever a train or my bike is not available.  Sadly, I don’t think this makes much economic sense – though no less than it did for Greater Anglia.  Not stopping at Whittlesford must have saved the train less than 90 seconds on its journey to Cambridge – but I assume this meant it passed some vital point on the network before the entirely arbitrary time of midnight. It would seem that Network Rail has more in common with Cinderella’s fair godmother than anyone had realised –  I just hope the train made it back to Cambridge before it turned back into a pumpkin piloted by a white mouse!

 

Traditions

For those of a certain vintage, tradition becomes increasingly important – if only as a bulwark against the ever-increasing rate of change.  I also find that I start to develop a growing number of traditions of my own – and the last couple of days has scored quite highly in the I-Spy Book of Fish Traditions (a book with a rather limited potential market I’ll admit – but that’s the joy of e-publishing, or so I’m told).

On Thursday I made my annual August pilgrimage to Edinburgh and, as is my wont, spent most of the journey stuffing my face with the nourishing largesse provide by East Coast to its first class passengers.  Unusually, my journey was routed via Kings Cross – as this offered the cheapest Advance fare at the time of booking (I may be first class, but I am still cheap and do manage to consume most of my fare in free food and drink, further boosting its value for money credentials) – so I was able to check out the newly revamped station.  This is a significant improvement on the old rather tatty concourse, and has even gained a platform – though those travelling with an owl will be disappointed to learn that it is numbered 0 (zero) rather than 9.75.  As part of the revamp, there has been a major boost to increase standards of customer care, evidenced by the announcements advising us to take care as we wandered around the terminal because of the “inclement weather”; this on one of this year’s all-too-rare warm, dry and sunny mornings.  If only other sections of our rail network aspired to – and better still delivered – such high standards.

Auld Reekie was bathed in glorious sunshine and in my first 24 hours in the city I managed to cover pretty much all of the traditional activities I have accreted over the last few years.

  • Seriously good classical music: Tick.  The Arcangelo consort and Iestyn Davies doing the honours at Greyfriars Kirk (no relation to James T, so far as I know).
  • Quirky comedy: double Tick.  Both Matthew Crosby and Stuart Goldsmith were huge fun.  I’m always puzzled where Mr G is not better known: I caught him as part of a triple bill of folk trying out their Edinburgh acts in Cambridge a few years ago (3 for £5) and discovered he was brilliant.  Yet another example of why it is important to try things you don;t yet know you like.  Push that envelope!  Lick that stamp!
  • Serious cake: Tick.  The Falko konditorei in Bruntsfield does provide some serious cake (or more accurately torte) action for the true connoisseur – and the hike across the Meadows from the Pleasance does significantly ameliorate any feelings of guilt that might otherwise be involved.
  • Bonsai: Tick.  On my first ever visit to the Fringe, I needed to find a decent eatery near the Pleasance – and the miracle of the interweb brought me to Bonsai.  This could be the best bit of browsing I’ve ever done as it is now my regular haunt whenever I’m in Edinburgh.  Japanese food is genuinely fast and sustaining, and so I can grab a quick “course” between gigs.  I have been known to visit five times in a single day – so often have I been, that the staff recognise me even though I’m only a customer for a single week each year.

The second 24 hours was pretty good too.  I can add Michael Legge and Lloyd Langford to my comedy recommendations – though I’d see the former sooner rather than later, as I’m not sure his heart will hold out much longer.  My plan to try and do a little bit less is working nicely – though doesn’t seem to be generating much in the way of earlier nights yet.  Yesterday, it meant that I escaped from the rather limited (for which read, non-existent) cask ale offerings at the Fringe venues to visit the Regency splendour of the Cafe Royal.  Not a cafe, but a very fine pub which provided your truly with a brace of pints of Deuchars IPA at a significantly lower price than the nitro-kegged horrors on offer at the Assembly Rooms (though still at a price level that shocks those who fondly remember Joey Holt’s at 99p/pint in the Bluebell in Moston).  My visit also scored me another minor celebrity spotting to add to my list: the long-haired TV archeologist Neil Oliver.

Yesterday also yielded another traditional (and for the reader, tedious) trope with news reaching me of the official opinion on my latest OU essay.  It once again yielded 95 of your English marks (somehow I can never quite make it to 96): given the amount of blowing this particular trumpet is receiving at my hands, my embrasure must be coming along nicely.

Today I shall be breaking new ground, with my first visit to the theatre in Scotland – but first, back to tradition: the full Scottish breakfast.  So for the next hour or so, black pudding, bacon and sausages will be deemed to be vegetables (mostly).

GCSE Equivalent?

I have had enough of the cold weather, and so have decided to head somewhere warmer.  Unlike most people (and creatures) from the Northern Hemisphere, I am not heading south to more traditional sources of winter warmth.  Oh no.  The path less travelled is taking me to Scotland, which is basking in much warmer temperatures than are available in arctic Cambridgeshire.

In fact, I planned this a couple of weeks ago, and today find I am planning to travel by train first thing in the morning after a full night of blizzard conditions.  I suspected that this journey may not have a happy ending, so decided to change my travel plans to beat the snow (I know it is more traditional to beat eggs, or a carpet, but how else do you think it ends up so lovely and fluffy?  Perhaps we should try “gritting” with icing sugar, as I’m sure snow meringue would offer excellent traction).

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the risk of this blog being called as a hostile witness, I like to think that I am fairly intelligent.  I try and pass myself as somewhat of an expert in arranging train travel, and in particular, how to travel in comfort without first obtaining a second mortgage on Fish Towers.  With low animal cunning I am able to break journeys into multiple tickets, alter travel times and routings, bounce between single and return tickets and first and standard class options to avoid single-handedly funding the rail network.  I have even spent more than an hour delving into the darkest recesses of the ATOC website to test valid routings, and the ability to leave the rail network part-way through my journey, to enable a weekend round trip encompassing both Lewes and Battle.  So, despite my original ticket being an Advance one, I was confident in my ability to easily alter the date of travel.  How wrong I was…

East Coast do allow you to alter your ticket on line, for a fairly modest £10 fee, as I discovered from a quick call to their web support.  This process works fine, you can rebook the ticket and make your reservations.  However, you are then told that there are no possible delivery options but that you must select a delivery option.  There seemed no escape from this paradox.

A further call to web support revealed that whilst a new ticket can be picked up from the station, an amended ticket has to be sent through the post.  I didn’t have the courage to ask why, I fear the answer would have been deeply depressing.  What a man (or woman or hyper-intelligent shade of the colour blue, for that matter) has to do is to book a brand new ticket and then call web support (again) to get the old ticket refunded (which involves mailing the old ticket to Wolverhampton for its sins).  I should imagine most punters never discover this fact, and so have to just write off the cost of the old ticket: but, luckily our hero is made of sterner (or more bloody-minded) stuff and so I have high hopes of a refund winging its way to me from the West Midlands in the coming weeks.

This week the government has decided to downgrade a number of qualifications (horse care and fish husbandry stick in the mind for some reason – I blame The News Quiz) so that they are no longer equivalent to a GCSE: good to see they are tackling the key issues affecting the country with such alacrity!  To partially counteract these losses, I would like to suggest that arranging rail travel (whilst avoiding excessive cost) should be considered at least the equivalent of a Higher National (do they still exist? or is it all NVQs now?) or even a first degree (certainly, Pure Mathematics at Oxford offered a substantially less challenging syllabus).

I’d also like to offer a shout-out to the brilliant staff at Whittlesford Parkway (which I had to visit twice this morning to try and re-arrange my travel, in addition to the three phone calls and heavy web access already mentioned).  There is only ever the one, and then only in the mornings, but they are always a joy to deal with.  I do hope they are still there (and properly treated) next week when our local trains have been taken over by the Dutch…