Touring the Port of Leith

IMG_20180616_095809
Waiting to load up
IMG_20180616_101625
A typical view

A few weeks ago, a colleague pointed out to me that Forth Ports were advertising free bus tours of the Port of Leith to mark their 50th anniversary.The Port of Leith is the largest enclosed deepwater port in Scotland and it handles lots of cargo, lots of North Sea oil/gas logistics and quite a few cruise ships. As a privately owned, working port, the goings on inside are a bit of a mystery to locals – until now, I’ve only ever really been aware the shape/layout of the port thanks to the map and views when arriving by air from the east. Living 15 minutes walk from the port and having wondered what lay inside, this seemed like an excellent opportunity to find out. A booking was duly made and one very, very rainy Saturday morning in mid-June we pitched up at the Prince of Wales Gate to join our tour.

It was very nice to see that they had chartered two old routemasters. Of course, filled up with a busload of passengers and on a rainy day, it took all of two minutes to steam up all the windows. Open window cracks offered some respite, and clear photos. Wiping the glass every few seconds helped too – but there’s only so much you can do.

IMG_20180616_103221
The Normand Pioneer – an offshore supply ship

Nevertheless, the tour, which lasted about 45 minutes was good. We received a running commentary as we drove around the docks – some of it slightly heavy on marketing copy – but plenty of it informative for the uninitiated. We stopped several times to be shown things, and received two ‘guest’ talks from speakers who got on. The highlight on this rainiest of days was probably seeing the lock gates used at the entrance to the port that ensure the depth inside remains the same regardless of the tide.

IMG_20180616_102331
The lock at the entrance to the port. In front is the lock gate, on a series of wires (just visible).

There’s not much more to add. Of course, better weather would have been nice – and more time could have been good in places. I hope this is something they decide to repeat or even develop in future. I would love to do a walking tour of the port, but this would clearly open up a whole host of other issues in terms of distance and safety. More realistic is possibly getting the chance to take the tour when it isn’t bucketing it down and the windows are clear!

IMG_20180616_103008
Another glimpsed vessel.
IMG_20180616_095831
On the quay where the buses departed.
Advertisements

Helsinki Public Transit

IMG_20180607_084838
Helsinki Cathedral

I was in Helsinki for a few days for a course. I thought I would write a few words about my experiences on public transit while I was there.

IMG_20180606_141128
Finnair City Buses still run to the airport

I’ve been to Helsinki once before in June 2015, which was before the airport rail link was opened. On that occasion, I remember feeling very negative about the Finnair City Bus, which seemed to take an age to reach the city centre, was over-full, and stops in the city were slow because people had to retrieve luggage from the compartment under the bus. This time around, I was able to take the train (cost of a single is €5 if bought from a machine of €4.20 bought via the local transit app). Rather than building a bespoke airport express service, the airport is simply a stop on Helsinki’s suburban rail network, served by both the I and P trains, which run to the city by different routes, both taking just over half an hour. This means there is a steady supply services to catch. The downside to these otherwise nice trains is a lack of luggage storage, as they have been designed to carry people on local journeys rather than travellers with suitcases. However, the services I used weren’t busy so this wasn’t a tremendous issue.

There are a range of trains at Helsinki’s main railway station, serving local, national and international destinations.

IMG_20180605_104404
A Finnish Pendolino
IMG_20180605_104556
Double decker
IMG_20180605_104421
The Allegro operates from Helsinki to St Petersburg

On my day of arrival I was fighting jetlag and reckoned a good idea was to try out various bits and bobs. After installing the HSL app on my phone and adding my credit card, it was simply a case of paying €9 for 24 hours of unlimited travel in the Helsinki zone. This meant I could try out the trams, buses and metro.

 

The tram network is comprehensive in central Helsinki, covering almost all central areas. Stops are at short intervals, trams are frequent and the system seems to work well. The new tram rolling stock is both stunning in appearance and comfortable to use. There are no ticket sales on board, which doubtless speeds up travel times too.

IMG_20180605_145732
An example of the new tram rolling stock in Helsinki
IMG_20180605_150037
Trams old and new
IMG_20180605_151304
Looking up the tram from the back seats
IMG_20180607_075817
A tram at the end of the line

The metro felt similarly efficient, making use of a proof-of-payment system which meant there were no barriers preventing access to platforms. The trains are functional, with plenty of seating and plenty of space to stand. I particularly liked the use of time markers on the map to show how long travel between each stop was.

IMG_20180605_144954
A typical platform on the metro system
IMG_20180605_144922
Metro exterior
IMG_20180605_145240
Metro interior

I didn’t make it onto the buses, but there is clearly a busy and efficient network in place. If I return, I will definitely give them a go when using a day ticket.

IMG_20180606_095605
A bus

Helsinki is a fairly walking-friendly city. While it isn’t altogether flat, nothing in the centre is ever far away. The course I attended moved us around various locations by minibus, which seemed borderline unnecessary given the city is almost home to a nasty one-way system.

The HSL app worked well for ticketing and planning purposes. There is a widespread city bike scheme in Helsinki, which I didn’t have time to use – I would have liked to see how straightforward it was to use as an English-speaking newcomer.  It will also be interesting to see how developments like Whimapp pan out – the subscription plans it offers vary. While unlimited travel on public transit may seem par for the course, the addition of unlimited taxi travel and car hire options seems innovative.

All in the all, Helsinki works well when it comes to public transit – and looks quite good doing so.

IMG_20180609_045450
Helsinki Central Station

Gothenburg-Brussels-Bristol

IMG_20180520_112406Following my outing to southern Sweden a few weeks ago, it was time to go home. As I was wrapping up my stay in Sweden in Gothenburg, I needed to find options home from here rather than my usual go-to of Copenhagen. This left a rather more limited selection of options with connections, with the most obvious option being Brussels Airlines. However, I discovered that for almost the same price it was possible to connect to Bristol instead. Why would Bristol be of interest? Well, Brussels-Bristol is not served by Brussels Airlines – instead they codeshare with bmi regional. It is many years since I have flown with bmi regional since they pulled out of Edinburgh. The fact that an Embraer 145 would be the aircraft in use made it doubly appealing.

IMG_20180520_133446

Back in the day before the BA takeover of bmi, bmi regional was the subsidiary operating various regional and business routes. I flew with them a handful of times between Manchester and Edinburgh (they continue to operate various domestic routes from Aberdeen, in particular), and similarly made use of them several times when they operated the Edinburgh-Copenhagen route (connecting onto SAS to Stockholm). BA did not acquire the regional subsidiary, which was subject to a management buyout and go to retain the bmi brand. It has gone a slightly different route and now operates a diverse, and frankly, rather bizarre range of routes. It specialises in wet leases (you can fly Karlstad-Frankfurt, for instance) as well as various PSO contracts and football charters. They haven’t joined an alliance, but offer codeshares on flights to Brussels and Frankfurt for longhaul connections. They’re still in business, so presumably it is working. That being said, they are heavily reliant on business traffic, with cash fares coming in high – the Brussels Airlines option only worked because they were offering discounted fares for the connection.

IMG_20180520_174507

After a sunny wandering around Gothenburg, it was time to head to the airport on the bus, which remains more or less unchanged from the last time I used it. On this particular occasion, passengers got to enjoy a broadcast of Planet Rock through the bus tannoy, which was a little unusual. Landvetter was a fairly smooth experience, and having cut it fairly fine it was time to head to the gate not long after clearing security. The flight down to the Brussels on an A320 was fairly unremarkable – the most engaging thing about Brussels Airlines is the crew’s use of Flemish, French and English throughout – which leads to an awful lot of chatter. Interestingly, for a Sunday evening flight, the plane was far from full – and it was clear from the provision of gate numbers in-flight that almost everyone was a connecting passenger. Our arrival at Brussels was at the very far end of the Schengen pier, which meant a long trek to reach the non-Schengen gates.

IMG_20180520_202437A few minutes were killed (the official connection is only 80 minutes) in the Priority Pass lounge, which I reckon remains one of the best I’ve encountered. There is a full spread of hot and cold food, as well as a good range of drinks including a nice, dry sparkling wine. Unlike on previous visits, the lounge was very busy – but this appeared to be one large party from a TV production company returning from an event. The lounge was helpfully located directly above the correct gate for the Bristol flight, so it was simply a case of popping downstairs at the appointed time. Naturally, the flight wasn’t boarding yet, and there appeared to be a degree of seat shifting going on with multiple passengers being paged at the gate and issued with new boarding passes. (Rather than upgrades, given that bmi regional does not operate a business cabin).

Once boarding got underway, things moved fairly swiftly. I was pleased to see that we would walk across the apron the aircraft, providing ample opportunity to soak up the E145 while it was on the ground. After getting on, we had to show boarding passes again to the sole member of cabin crew. I gather this is not standard for bmi regional, but the member of crew appeared astonished that there were so many passengers for Bristol (all the more remarkable given the plane was perhaps 2/3 full). Many bags were checked at the aircraft steps, given how small the cabin was and quite how much hand luggage some people had brought with them. Fortunately, I had opted to check my large bag in Gothenburg so faced no such issues. What followed was one of the most (over?) thorough safety demonstrations and securing of the cabin I have encountered in years, with concerns over passengers’ shoes, the location of their luggage, and much more. I certainly appreciate a strong focus on safety, but this bordered on paranoid!

IMG_20180520_204702

Once we had taxied and hit the run way, I was reminded of quite how great the E145’s take-off roll is. It took almost nothing to get us into the air and away we went for what was really a very brief flight of 55 minutes to Bristol. We were flying at that most wonderful of times – just before sunset, which saw us chasing a red sky most of the way to our destination. I was struck by how comfortable and spacious the Embraers are, despite the small cabin size, and this must serve bmi well when marketing their charter services. In-flight service was limited to a (free) bar run, with a good selection of drinks available. It wasn’t long before we were on approach to Bristol though, and after a smooth landing we ended up on a remote stand from which we were bussed to the terminal.

IMG_20180520_210500

After a night in the hotel adjacent to the terminal (courtesy of points), I made my way home in the morning on a short hop with EasyJet. I was glad to have taken my rather convoluted route, as the E145 is a fairly rare visitor to Edinburgh these days. It was a bit of a nostalgia kick (and a reminder that bmi have in fact done nothing to refresh their aircraft in years!) and a reminder that the small Embraers are really one of the best small passenger jet flying experiences out there at the moment. The connection between Brussels Airlines and bmi was seamless, with no ticketing issues and baggage making it through just fine. Given bmi’s coverage in Scandinavia, it is a pity they do not offer any routes out of Edinburgh. Perhaps this will change in future.

IMG_20180520_214530

Train adventures in southern Sweden

img_20180516_145438.jpgA recent meeting and conference invitation took me to Lund in southern Sweden for a few days. In the end, I settled for flying out with Norwegian to Copenhagen as this was the best compromise of travel times and price, before travelling on to Lund on the train from the airport courtesy of the Öresund bridge. I stayed with friends the first evening. The next morning, the spontaneous decision was made (courtesy cancelled meetings) to head north to Haverdal for the day. The weather forecast for there was better, and I fancied a day writing by the sea.

Having purchased my SJ resplus ticket (enabling to connect all the way from start to finish across local train, SJ and local bus), I discovered that there was an electrical fault on the west coast mainline at Ödåkra, just north of Helsingborg. This had resulted in the suspension of most services. However, SJ were being creative. By bypassing Helsingborg (with a vague promise of a rail replacement bus for those passengers) and running inland via Höör, Hässleholm and Markaryd, they were able to circumvent the issue.

IMG_20180517_110227

I was hopeful that I would get away on time, given the train before mine had run just 20 minutes late, but it turned out that a late running inbound caused rather a lot of delays. In the end, my train north was running over an hour late. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my (updated) SJ breakfast in a very deserted first class compartment and got plenty of work done as I toured parts of Sweden I have previously only seen on a map.

IMG_20180517_093811

Our arrival into Halmstad was sufficiently late that I had not only missed my original bus connection, but also the one an hour later. I needed to wait another hour – something that was stated on the train tannoy: ‘Passengers for Haverdal should await the 12:00 bus’ – quite who else could have had a Haverdal ticket is beyond me, given almost no one gets off in Halmstad from the SJ services, and I was struck at how thought through it is to tell onboard staff that they have delayed onward passengers. In practice, given the delay repay scheme and the extent of my delay I got into a taxi to hasten my travel – to be claimed back later.

IMG_20180517_211118

The return journey early the next morning was very much the opposite of the experience a day earlier. I was booked on a bus + SJ ticket, and everything ran smoothly. In fact, the bus arrived at Halmstad station a few minutes early allowing me to run and errand. I made it from door-to-door to my Lund accommodation in under two hours, which is excellent (and effectively unbeatable even by car). The breakfast box was, once again, also appreciated. I wouldn’t pay SEK 70 for it, but when you get it for free, it makes the SEK 100 supplement for first class seem well worth it.

The next day, I was to return to Haverdal at the end of my conference, and once again the speed of SJ was very appreciated – with Lund to Halmstad taking just a shade over an hour. I was especially pleased as I got to make use of my SJ Prio points (my travels in the autumn finally counted for something!) as I was able to book a free ticket in standard class. What was striking was that this was available with two hours notice before departure, and that the ticket itself was flexible – the points were fully refundable until the train departed. It was the first time I had travelled in standard on the SJ 3000, and it was fine. There is free WiFi and at seat power for all, making the difference between standard and first nominal. The seats are slightly comfier in first, but without the breakfast box, it is hard to justify the extra cost.

While SJ has punctuality issues, and typically costs a shade more than the competition (especially when you take into account the discount offered on the stopping trains if using the discount card), the speed of the services, the guaranteed seat, the ability to book via the app at the last minute and so on are all highly appreciated. I will continue to make use of these when possible on the Swedish west coast, and hope that I will have built up a collection of points to travel free again soon.

All Change on the East Coast

IMG_20180107_164346So it’s good bye to Virgin Trains East Coast and hello LNER. VTEC only managed just over 3 years looking after the franchise, and it’s been obvious from the trade press and latterly the broadsheets that some sort of government bailout for the franchise was inevitable. I confess to being a little surprised that Chris Grayling was willing to nationalise a franchise – at one time it seemed he was belligerently sticking to his guns and avoiding doing so in order to ensure no one thought he might listen to Labour, the public, or sense. There are good accounts of why the numbers didn’t work for the franchise out there already, alongside some thought-provoking pieces on the choice of brand for the new state operator. (I can’t help but wonder why East Coast Trains wasn’t revived – it was popular with the public and already has ample brand recognition). However, I thought I’d briefly reflect on how the change in franchise holder might impact my own travel patterns…

Points
The East Coast Trains loyalty scheme was tremendously popular, and when VTEC proposed closing it there was an outcry. It elicited a campaign blog and a large petition, but to no avail. It has since been possible to earn Nectar points or Virgin Flying Club points on transactions made through VTEC. I’ve tended towards collecting Nectar points (Virgin don’t fly to Edinburgh, so I prefer not to have orphan points lingering in my account), but earnings have been unremarkable. In terms of redemptions, it remains true that nothing lives up to East Coast Rewards, but there have been a couple of Nectar promotions over the last three years that have been most generous. On one occasion, we were able to secure £100 of credit to spend with Virgin for just £50 of Nectar points. It’ll be interesting to see what the LNER approach to points and loyalty is – they’re almost certainly going to drop Nectar and will obviously lose Virgin Flying Club.

IMG_20180327_084717Promotions
Virgin have been throwing the kitchen sink at getting people to ditch air travel in favour of the train on the east coast – supposedly with some success. The marketing budget has gone on all sorts, including a mass of TV spots, multiple huge billboards around Edinburgh, taxi wraps, etc. There has also been a concerted effort to run more sales and drive people to make advance bookings – seemingly with some success. One of the most interesting promotions was in the autumn of 2016, where anyone who could demonstrate they had flown to London in the previous three months was provided with a voucher to book a first class round trip from Edinburgh to London for £60 – an absolute steal given that availability was excellent. More recently, as the franchise began to hit the rocks, it felt like these had dried up. Perhaps, with a new operator on the scene, we can expect to see more marketing money thrown at passengers… We can but hope.

IMG_20180327_092758Other
Schedules are more or less fixed – we’re unlikely to get a later last service north from London to Scotland as a result of the change to LNER. Likewise, the new Azuma trains (already rolled out in green for GWR) are coming whether we like it or not. (Reports of quite how uncomfortable these trains can be make me wary). The change in franchise holder won’t change the crews on board, and service has typically been good over the last few years on the east coast. In catering terms, it’s been a long time since there was a restaurant car on the east coast (time to bring it back?), but the current first class catering concept was largely introduced by East Coast and retained (with tweaks) by VTEC. Presumably, LNER has no intention of rocking the service boat when it takes over.

IMG_20180327_084739My travel plans
Having had a hiatus in 2017 where I did not travel to London by rail on any one occasion, I have done so a couple of times so far this year. It remains the case that I am reluctant to travel down during the day, as it takes up so much time (and at premium rates if leaving Edinburgh early), while departing the night before adds a night of accommodation to the bill. The return is made tricky by the early departure of the final train of the night to Scotland – I have come to prefer the sleeper for this. What is likeliest to persuade me to change my habits that is within LNER’s control? Cheaper 1st class fares.

Let’s see what lies in wait for us with this new operator…

Toronto-Regina-Toronto

IMG_20180528_064656Having been in Toronto for a few days, I was bound for Regina, Saskatchewan – the Queen City – and provincial capital. Booking through tickets from Edinburgh is challenging, so it had made the most sense from a ticketing perspective to book separately from Toronto. This also suited my own preferences as I wanted to break my journey in Toronto to visit friends. At the time of booking, there was almost no distinction between flights being offered by Air Canada and by WestJet on the Toronto-Regina route. This is the norm in Canada, where domestic flights are expensive and where competition is limited. I opted for Air Canada as I was taking advantage of an offer via the American Express travel agency and needed the fares to be loaded there, which WestJet were not.

IMG_20180528_044842
A quiet platform for the 04:55 UP Express at Union station.

I had an early start to make to get to Pearson Airport on my day of outbound travel. I had been staying directly adjacent to Toronto’s Union Station, so I didn’t have far to go to catch the first UP Express of the day at 04:55. The train was pleasantly quiet and before I knew it I was at Pearson. Here, I took slightly longer than expected to find the left luggage unit as I wanted to leave my suitcase in Toronto and only take a backpack to Regina. This safely dealt with, I cleared security and was able to grab some coffee and toast in the Plaza Premium lounge courtesy of my Priority Pass. The lounge was rather underwhelming (tinned music and no power in the sockets), but it served its purpose. Boarding for the flight was bilingual. The aircraft was an E190, which makes for an interesting experience of 2+2 seating across 33 rows (although there are a few rows of Business Class seating as 2+1 at the front) leading to a very long and thin aircraft. I was seated in row 31, which meant there was a lot of plane ahead of me. Leg space on the Embraers is decent, although overhead luggage storage was an issue in both directions – with most passengers taking full advantage of their allowance of one bag and one personal item.

 

IMG_20180531_204435
Air Canada tea and my own Marabou snack.

Everything ran smoothly, and we got away on time. Interestingly, despite pushing a buy on board catering service, there was also free provision hot drinks and soft drinks – with two drinks runs during the flight. Other features you might not encounter on a similar flight in Europe included personal entertainment screens for each passenger, USB charging points (mine didn’t work on the outbound) and chargeable WiFi.

IMG_20180531_210039
Personal screen and USB charging.

 

The outbound flight was marked by a fair amount of turbulence throughout the 3 hours in the air. Arrival into Regina involved a fly by of the city before dropping into the airport on the outskirts. The arrivals process was straightforward enough, with the terminal being rather small. The lack of city buses to the airport is something I have discussed in another post.

 

IMG_20180531_182558
A Winnipeg-bound Dash 400 at Regina Airport
IMG_20180531_203244
Sunset flying east.

On the return from Regina a few days later, I was booked on the final flight of the day to Toronto. I had hoped I might move my travel forward, but due to the major conference in town, all flights were sold out. Consequently, I was left to kill time in Regina as colleagues departed for other destinations. I walked to the airport, which took me just an hour from the downtown area. The lower level of departures featured check in desks, while upstairs a small security area led into a small airside waiting area. Fortunately, I didn’t have too long to wait and there were ample charging points for devices as well as free WiFi. The run back to Toronto was largely uneventful, with the same aircraft as on the outbound. Arriving into Toronto after midnight, I had booked a hotel given that I feared I would miss the final UP Express back to the city, so I was obliged to find the shuttle bus.

This was my first experience of Air Canada, and despite a soso reputation I found it to be pleasant and punctual. I’d be keen to try them for a long haul international sector, although as domestic sectors go, three hours is a long time. The most striking issue is the cost of domestic air travel in Canada, which would certainly make you think twice. Colleagues in Regina commented that it was often cheaper to buy a ticket to Europe than to Toronto. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to try a new aircraft type, airline and city.

IMG_20180531_220631
Night over Toronto.

Buses in the Queen City

I spent a few days in Regina, Saskatchewan – the Queen City – for a conference at the end of May. This was my first visit to anywhere in Canada west of Ontario, and my first experience of a small, provincial Canadian city. My previous experiences of Canadian local public transit have typically been either that it exists and is in fact very good (coverage offered by the Hamilton Street Railway is excellent, for instance), or that there isn’t any at all. In the case of Regina, what research I had done beforehand suggested that there was a reasonable network that would do the job.

IMG_20180531_154524

It was only a few days before my arrival that I realised that the city bus network does not serve Regina Airport. This is despite the airport being just 5km from the city centre (I walked from downtown to the airport in an hour), and approximately 10 minutes’ drive by car. Fortunately, the resolution to this in my case was that a fellow conference delegate based in Regina very kindly collected me (and many other delegates) from the airport with his car.

IMG_20180528_100701I first attempted to make use a bus on my day of arrival, and found one solitary webpage explaining what fares were available, which explained that these had to be paid in correct change only. $3.25 for a single or $10 for a day pass. I got on my bus and requested a day pass, feeding my $10 into the fare box. I was issued with a piece of paper. It was only later that it transpired this was a standard transfer – discovered when it didn’t work on another bus. After a visit to the public transit information office, where the wonderful staff were most apologetic, I was informed that Congress had in fact negotiated free citywide travel on Regina’s buses for delegates, but only those who had managed to obtain their lanyards from the university on the city’s outskirts. I was very generously marshalled onto a bus free of charge to take me there, although by the time I got there registration was closed for the day. Once again, I was reliant on the goodwill of car drivers at my event to get around.

In fact, although travel information was relatively easy to come by (they had hard copy maps and data was loaded to Google Maps), buses did not run on time. The service looked good on paper in terms of frequency and routes, but in practice felt a little unreliable. What was particularly strange was that Congress had not made more of the free local bus travel, made it easier for delegates to obtain it, or made provision for people arriving by air (there are tracks in Regina but no passenger trains, and it is a long way from anywhere else for drivers). Even odder was the provision of conference special buses to downtown hotels, with no map provided anywhere to explain where these went.

The buses themselves were well worn and probably wanted a good clean on both the inside and outside. That being said, they were accessible and air conditioned (which was definitely necessary with 30-degree temperatures in May – the Prairies can get hot!). They were well patronised by locals, which meant that they got rather full with conference delegates flooding town. All in all, it was pleasant to find a half decent transit system being offered in provincial Canada, but the anomalies were peculiar. A system that doesn’t explain how to pay, doesn’t run on time and doesn’t go to obvious local destinations still has room for improvement. On the other hand, given the recent closure of Saskatchewan’s provincial bus network, Regina locals and visitors alike should perhaps consider themselves lucky to have buses at all. In practice, you will need a car or to know someone with one if passing through the modestly-sized Queen City.

IMG_20180528_170717