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!

 

It was the best of TOCs, it was the worst of TOCs

For the uninitiated, a TOC is a Train Operating Company – one of the menagerie of new entities created when the railways were privatised in a particularly idiotic manner a few years back.  The TOCs are responsible for running trains and managing some of the stations.  The TOC under the spotlight in this post is the Greater Anglia franchise, run by the Dutch group abellio which also runs the railways in the Netherlands.

In a recent Which? study, Greater Anglia was rated (almost) the worst of the UK’s TOCs in terms of customer satisfaction.  It was only the presence of First Capital Connect (the other TOC serving Cambridge, which I presume is only a coincidence) which kept Greater Anglia out of last place (and then only just).  In terms of the management of the franchise, and in particular its provision of reliable services and station management, I would suggest that Greater Anglia more than deserves its reputation at the bottom of the heap.  Though in terms of speed of re-branding the operation they were very effective – which must give some indication that their priorities lie more in self-aggrandisement than in running a railway franchise.

However, in terms of the staff one actually meets and interacts with as a passenger, I would suggest Greater Anglia must be one of the best of the TOCs and I could not ask for better.  My experience of their front-line staff has been universally positive – and this was strongly reinforced on my journey home last night.  I (only) just caught the 22:58 from Liverpool Street which I had expected to stop at Whittlesford Parkway (as all trains from London stop there) – but when we reached Whittlesford it kept going through the station at some 80mph (though it obeyed all the other normal station stops).  So, instead of being re-united with my bike I was delivered instead to Cambridge a little after midnight.  Chatting with the very helpful and cheery driver, I learned that for some reason the train was instructed not to stop at Whittlesford and that he had made frequent announcements.  Sadly, he was at the front of the train and I was in the eighth carriage – an antique example of Class 317/1 rolling stock – in which the PA system was clearly broken.  Actually, the 317/1s are older than the space shuttle and have probably racked up more miles – and so it is a miracle they work at all (in rain, I have seen water pouring into the coaches through the light fittings which can’t good).  Greater Anglia did away with guards years ago – so the driver was on his own and had no way to know I couldn’t hear him and I had no way to know there was something to hear.

The staff at Cambridge station were also really helpful and from them I learned why the 317/1s are in such a state.  The current franchise is only short, and so it makes no economic sense to do anything but the most basic cosmetic upgrades (well, I did say the method of privatisation was idiotic).  The next holder of the franchise (which will be for 15 years – well, unless the government make a complete mess of the tender process, again) will have some major upgrade costs to swallow.  I also discovered that useless as Stansted Airport may be for the business traveller (well, this business traveller), I still have cause to be grateful to it.  The airport funded much of the cost of the new Class 379 units which make some journeys a much more pleasant and comfortable experience (well, as long as there are no issues with the GPS).  Finally, I learned why all trains stop at Audley End: the farmer who originally sold the land to the railways made this a condition of the sale.  His wishes remain in force all these years later and it must be more than 150 years later!  So the 400 residents of Wendons Ambo (where the station lies) have a very decent rail service all thanks to that long-dead farmer.  You can learn so many things if you just chat to people – even in these days of the internet and search engines.

As my stranding could largely be placed at the door of poor carriage maintenance, or perhaps because they were just sympathetic to a chap with an interest in the railways, the Cambridge station staff put me in a taxi back to Whittlesford.  Once again, excellent customer service from their front-line staff – who no doubt spend much of their time fighting against the more senior management who have probably never seen a train, let alone a passenger (I refuse to be a customer).  Still, this situation is hardly unique to the privatised railways: I could tell you some stories from my own working life (but for the sake of what I like to call my career, I won’t).

So, somewhat after 00:30 I was reunited with my bike – and it was properly cold out (-3°C feels like -10°C, with the wind chill, according to the Met Office).  So cold that the hub gear wouldn’t change – its vital fluids had solidified – but luckily I had left it in a low enough gear to make it home.  I was not cold, largely because I had slightly overly prepared on the warm clothing front (I am not at home to Mr Frostbite) though the wind did blow icy cold air past my gloves and up my sleeves.  I think I need arm garters or perhaps I should just drive to the station like a normal person?  I will admit that I do try and avoid this (driving rather than being a normal person – though some would say I avoid that too) as I feel NCP charge an extortionate (and ever increasing) amount to park at Whittlesford Parkway.  As the owner of the only car park within 2 miles of the station, I feel they are abusing their monopoly position and they certainly aren’t using the income to maintain the car park or its one ticket machine.  I wonder if I could interest the Competition Commission in the case?  This is far from the only such abuse of position – just look at the costs of hospital parking (though one can at least hope that this is propping up the NHS, despite the very real fear that it is just be lining the pockets of the car park owners) – perhaps it’s time I started a crusade…

Standard Class Citizen

As has been well established by now, I tend to make my way by means of bicycle or train.  Oft, I try to combine the two by cycling to the station and then catching a train.  Usually, this requires me to leave my steed at Whittlesford Parkway whilst onward I journey.  There used to be four Sheffield stands on the Sawston side of the station to allow my mount to be safely secured.  However, as with so much in this country, these were not maintained for many years and so became badly afflicted by rust (a cynic might view this as a metaphor for the whole rail network).

For a while, the rust held the stands together – but over the last couple of weeks, three of the four have completely disintegrated (and the last can’t be long for this world).  So, I filled in a complaint form and sent it off to Greater Anglia (who are the operators of Whittlesford Parkway station) requesting their replacement (the cycle stands, rather than Greater Anglia).  Yesterday, the post brought a reply – from someone claiming the title of Customer Relations Advisor.  I hadn’t realised I was in need of advice on my Customer Relations and as the letter contained no obvious counsel on this topic, I fear they will remain as poor as ever.

Apparently, the Area Station Manager (hereinafter referred to as the ASM) is going to look for funds to improve the situation: perhaps he could take a peek down the back of his sofa?  Curiously, as I have previously noted, there was no shortage of funds to re-brand everything on the station when Greater Anglia took over the local rail franchise.  Ironically, one of the items re-branded was a poster warning customers to take care when using the stairs of the footbridge.  Customers from Sawston will now have to navigate this same footbridge whilst carrying their bicycles (twice per journey) in search of a secure anchorage – a somewhat dangerous operation, and one not obviously made any safer by the re-branded poster.

Should our ASM find a few quid, and have any left over after replacing the bike racks, he might also consider fixing the station departure indicator display on Platform 1 which has not been operational since January.

I recently discovered that more than 160,000 journeys either start or end at Whittlesford Parkway each year (of which I should be able to claim a few score).  This is rather more than many other stations on the same line, though I’ve noticed that many of these have brand new cycle racks – and several stations have recently gained a new footbridge (with lift!) and/or a platform extension.  Clearly, we are being treated as second (sorry, standard) class citizens!  What have the folk of Whittlesford (or perhaps Duxford, Pampisford or Sawston) done to offend the Dutch (who now run our trains)?  I’d have expected better of the Dutch, who at home seem pretty good at looking after their cyclists: which perhaps provides a warning on the dangers of the stereotype.

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…