Edinburgh to London in the dawn

IMG_20171018_063351A couple of months ago, that most annoying of events cropped up in my calendar. Something I really, really wanted to attend – in a central London, starting at 9am. (To add yet more to the mix, the event was programmed to last for 11 hours and the next day I needed to be in Sweden. More on that another time). The options for a 9am start in London are few. The first train of the day is at 05:40, but doesn’t reach King’s Cross until 09:40 – no good for an event by Victoria! The sleeper is an option, and I sleep reasonably on board, but ahead of such a long day I really want to have slept in a proper bed – prices were also high. Hotel costs, at short notice, were also too high for me to travel the day before – while the option of staying with friends is ruled out by the likely late arrival the night before and early departure in the morning. That leaves air. There were a number of early departures from Edinburgh to choose from. In the end, I discounted Stansted and Luton (as ever), and was left with Heathrow, Gatwick or City. The Heathrow flights weren’t ideally timed, and it takes longer to get to Victoria from there. Gatwick and City are about equal in terms of time from the airport to Smith Square. The winner? EasyJet’s 06:10 departure to Gatwick. I prefer City, but in the winter, early morning flights are often affected by fog, and I wanted to avoid that risk.

Fast forward to the day of travel and I was up far too bright and early. A taxi booked for 04:30 arrived on time and got me over to the airport in the usual 25 minutes. As I was actually leaving for a 3-week trip, I had a bag to drop, but departures was fairly quiet. Similarly, I got through security in just a couple of minutes. This was a very pleasant outcome, meaning that I unexpectedly had time to pop into the No 1 Lounge for a hasty breakfast. The EasyJet standard, that the gate closes 30 minutes before departure, was my guiding principle. However, at 05:30, I saw that it had already gone to final call, so I made a fairly hasty move to the allotted gate where they were already gathering up the stragglers onto the final bus to the aircraft. Off to the aircraft we went, and it transpired that it was a far-from-full flight. This meant I had an empty middle seat shielding me from the aisle seat passenger.

The first officer noted that there were delays at Gatwick and that we would be late, but that they were attempting to negotiate for an earlier slot. Moments later, he returned to announce they had indeed secured that earlier slot and we very hurriedly commenced  push back and safety demonstrations. We got away and made steady progress through the dark night. Incredibly, the flight arrived at Gatwick 30 minutes early – a first for me on a domestic sector with any airline! No complaints though, as this meant that I had time to retrieve by suitcase, drop it off at my airport hotel, and then dash to Gatwick station.

IMG_20171018_080516As I arrived at the station, I saw that a Gatwick Express I thought I had missed was 4 minutes late – just enough time to buy a ticket and get onto the platform to get on! (And to take the world’s quickest/poorest photo!) This was good, I even got a seat. Once we arrived at Victoria, it was just under 15 minutes’ walk to the venue, where I arrived at 08:55, ready for my 09:00 start.

I was fairly amazed I did make it in time for a 9am start, as I’ve had trouble making it to much later starts in central London when starting out from Edinburgh. I really did benefit from starting from home rather than incurring the time/financial cost of a night in a hotel beforehand, and would definitely give stronger consideration to trying this kind of itinerary again in future if an early start in London is on the cards. Clearly, it can’t be expected to work every time though – so for anything critical that overnight stay will still be necessary.

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Edinburgh – Boroughbridge – Edinburgh

IMG_20171008_101043This weekend we took a last minute trip to Boroughbridge in Yorkshire to visit my sister-in-law in her new home. Booking at 9pm, just 18 hours before departure, there was still widespread availability of advance tickets, but few that merited purchase (as compared with an off peak return). However, Cross Country did manage to deliver cheap tickets – and with their 10% discount to NUS card holders they became fairly competitive. We paid £36 return (as opposed to £60) for standard class travel from Edinburgh to York.

We made a start from work at 14:30 to catch our 15:08 train, which meant we had time to pick up a good cup of coffee en route to the station. It was necessary fortification for what was to follow! Being the middle of a Friday afternoon, the train was almost full on departure from Edinburgh (full and standing from Newcastle), which isn’t very pleasant. It’s been a long time since I subjected myself to a Voyager in peak times, and I remember why I try to avoid them. They are claustrophobic, and combined with the poor ride quality and rather knackered seats, it all makes for fairly hard work as the passenger. The less said about the two fellow passengers who managed to spend almost 3 hours on the phone, the better! Nevertheless, the train served its purpose and we arrived in York, on time at 17:40.

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After a brief pitstop for Mars-bar-based sustenance, we headed outside to catch the final 22 of the day, scheduled for 17:57. The bus normally runs to Harrogate via Boroughbridge and Ripon (and indeed anywhere else with people in it), but the final bus of the day is a half service as far as Boroughbridge. We waited, and waited, and waited. At 18:15, our bus finally arrived. On board was one passenger. The passenger who got on in front of us was disappointed the bus didn’t go to Ripon but decided to travel anyway. And we got on. That was it – no further passengers boarded anywhere and we ran non-stop from York station to the terminus in Boroughbridge. As you can see from the map, the bus does not follow the most direct route – and visits a number of villages using roads that don’t seem altogether bus-appropriate! As the bus was running late (and with no chance to catch up – the timetable basically covers the time it takes to drive the route non-stop), we lost the light for the final 20 minutes, which was a pity. That being said, it clearly performs a vital service by offering bus connections to a number of rural communities.

After a very pleasant, if rather brief stay, it was time to go home on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, there is no bus service on Sundays so we had to seek out other alternatives. While getting a lift to Poppleton Bar and then using the park and ride bus service is one option, we opted for the more interesting one of heading to Cattal station, around 15 minutes’ drive from Boroughbridge. This was exciting: it is possibly the most rural station I have ever used, with the possible exception of Middlewood. It is a Northern Rail station, but is wholly unstaffed. As you may be able to see in the photo though, there is a Network Rail employee on duty all day working as crossing keeper. The line west of Cattal is single track with semaphore signalling, and is token operated. Below you can see the token about to be handed over to the driver of the westbound service for Harrogate.

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Arriving just before a westbound service departed, and in good time for our eastbound York service, I had a good chance to watch the station and crossing keeper at work. The crossing was closed for a good 6 minutes before the Harrogate service departed, leading to quite the queue of traffic on either side. You’ll note the fence and gate behind the crossing keeper, which were closed to keep alighting passengers on the platform until the train departed so that they didn’t get run over! Before the keeper could open the gates across the road, he then had to return to the signal box to change all the signals and notify the next signaller that the train had left.

You can see below the crossing keeper at work, moving the barriers to close off the line rather than the road.

Ahead of the arrival of our train, a 12:53 departure, the crossing keeper cut it much finer – the gates weren’t shut until the train was in sight. Interestingly, National Rail’s live tracker was useless – no line side equipment to monitor the train – so we were in the dark, and only the signaller knew when it was coming. In the brief clip below, you can see the arrival of the train – note the driver holding out the token.

IMG_20171008_130245Unstaffed station means buy on board tickets. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, and I was amazed to discover that tickets are now printed on what is effectively a receipt printer, rather than ye olde ticket machines. See below for an example. In price terms, the train and the bus were about equal for me as a railcard holder, but the train would be more costly for non-railcard users.

We had a quick run into York and arrived just a minute or so late. This gave us 20 minutes for our connection – and time to find decent coffee. York station, which is beautiful, as Simon Jenkins recently highlighted, now has local coffee chain Filmore & Union on its platforms – a big improvement on the usual SSP fare you find in stations.

IMG_20171008_131955Our train to Edinburgh arrived early at the platform, and was fortunately far less busy than our outbound service. We departed late thanks to a delayed East Coast service a few minutes ahead of us, although we made most of the time back by Edinburgh. The journey itself was unremarkable, although the Cross Country Voyagers are starting to feel a bit worn. As well as being rather dirty on the outside on this occasion, the scuffed seats and paintwork inside really detract from the look. Seats remain in Virgin colours despite having been out of Virgin management for almost a decade, and the removal of the onboard shops leaves passengers with just a trolley service which has to make its way through narrow aisles in crowded carriages. Not ideal.

So, an interesting weekend in travel terms. (Boroughbridge and Ripon and surroundings are beautiful too). Is Cross Country the better option on the east coast out of Edinburgh? No, not really. But sometimes price really can give it the edge. In terms of rural transportation in Yorkshire, it was pleasant to have a choice – but the straightforward winner is really the train service to Cattal. Some retrospective research has shown that advance tickets on Virgin East Coast to Cattal are sold for no more than tickets to York, so in future we will buy tickets to Cattal, regardless of whether we are using the train to get there or not. And, of course, the chance to see a crossing keeper at work is most welcome. Giving Cattal the final edge is this: if waiting to be picked up by car, there is a pub directly next door!

The Dangleway

On a recent, ahem, flying visit to London, I killed a few minutes en route to City Airport by trying out the Emirates Air Line between North Greenwich and the Royal Docks, more fondly known by some as the Dangleway. Yes, it’s something of a white elephant and yes, it doesn’t actually go anywhere, but it still features on the official London Tube map, which means it falls within the remit of this blog as transport. On the other hand, it offers views like this one…

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Aiming to catch the dangleway at sunset, I arrived just before 19:00, having navigated my way through the somewhat angular environs around North Greenwich and the O2 (onomastically, this place is a haven for third-party branded destinations). Boarding was straightforward enough – bleep in with contactless payment card through standard gates and up the stairs. I secured a gondola to myself without any difficulty.

On the way across, I felt that the (rather small) gondola could have been a little more stable – but it didn’t do any wobbling that I would consider alarming. You can understand why they don’t operate in high winds though. The views were rather good and naturally a few snaps were taken. At Royal Docks, there was conspicuously no one getting on or off – and I followed the trend, keeping my gondola to myself for the return journey, which provided some fantastic views.

The idea that this is a form of transport used by anyone to go anywhere legitimately is laughable. Especially when there is pop music being piped into the gondola at full volume. Even more irritating was the current Thunderbirds promotion, which included stupid decals applied to the gondola obstructing the view. What did I pay for the privilege of travelling on this rather daft form of transport back to where I began? £7. Is it an outrageous example of over-spend on a pointless project? Most certainly, but then I live in the city that managed to spend £1 billion on procuring just under 9 miles of tramline.

Lothian Buses on Doors Open Day

Edinburgh’s Doors Open Day, organised by the Cockburn Association, is an opportunity once per year to see inside some of the city’s architecturally worthwhile buildings, as well as other buildings of public interest. This year’s programme can be seen here. For several years, Lothian Buses have opened up their Central Garage on the Saturday and each time I’ve missed it. This year, they were pushing it particularly hard via various social media channels, and I managed to round up some company to head to the north side of Princes Street.

We walked over from the Southside, which gave us ample opportunity to catch sight of a few of the vintage buses that were being used to operate the number 26 in honour of the big day. Below is a 90s throwback sighted at the foot of the Mound…

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Meanwhile, we captured this beauty at the top of London Road.

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Once we got down to Annandale Street, we discovered an enormous queue to get in (easily 1/4 mile long), but it was making steady progress, and we probably only waited 10 minutes before we were inside. As we came past the front of the depot, we saw what lay in store for us – bus tours!

Inside there was quite the hoopla going on, with people everywhere and all sorts of buses (and quite a few other vehicles) to look at. You could generally go inside the newer ones, while the vintage ones (pulled in from museums and the like) were for outside observation only. Of particular interest was seeing a bus used by East Coast Buses on services to Dunbar (no good photos, sorry), which really sets the standard for a high quality bus for use on rural services. From an Edinburgh-centric perspective, these brand new Volvo electric buses looked interesting. You could even walk underneath one! They were rather stumpy and it remains to be seen which routes they will be used on – they look most suited to use on regular circulators, but Edinburgh doesn’t have any of those…

Here’s an attempt to show a wider spread of the buses on show.

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Some buses seemed to be a long way from home…

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IMG_20170923_132106And finally the moment we had all been waiting for. Obviously the bus wash tour was fantastic fun – although it was rather like getting onto an evening rush hour bus in heavy rain really.

All in all, it was great to have the chance to see Lothian HQ. It’d be fun if they consider opening the doors to the tram depot at Gogar in future years.

Haverdal to Edinburgh via Denmark

IMG_20170911_083242Our trip to rainy, rural Sweden was almost at an end and decisions had to be made about how to get ourselves back home to Edinburgh. Unlike on the way, we had most of the day to make our way to Copenhagen airport for a 17:05 departure to Edinburgh. We settled on using the Helsingborg-Helsingør ferry as a variation on the direct train. It is possible to buy a through ticket from the bus driver when boarding at our local stop all the way to Copenhagen – and by either the ferry or bridge route. Our driver hadn’t sold a “via ferry” ticket before, but it didn’t stop her from doing so! You even save around £2 per person by buying the ferry option. So, we joined the 08:41 to Halmstad, which is fairly busy bus – including passengers going to Halmstad Airport for flights to Stockholm. Despite several passengers needing to top up their travel cards onboard (ourselves included), we made good progress to town and arrived at the bus station just 3 minutes behind schedule.

This gave us ample time to loiter at a rather grey, chilly Halmstad station. What do you do once you’ve consumed your coffee and bun from the ubiquitous Pressbyrån? Why, you wander around the platforms watching the other trains come and go. Halmstad is where the fast SJ services bypass the slow Öresundståg services – and it is quite impressive to watch it happen. The SJ train arrives just a couple of minutes behind the stopper, and manages to be away in around 90 seconds (no platform dispatchers in Halmstad either, so this is all done by the conductor).

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Eventually, our train, the 10:12 turned up. It was pink! (In Helsingborg, they join a second set on which was green on this occasion!). We managed to secure seats, which isn’t always a given on these trains. The journey was unremarkable until just north of Helsingborg, where there remains a stretch of single track – we had to wait for a delayed northbound train, and the minutes ticked away. So much so that we did not make our connection to the Scandlines Aurora in Helsingborg.

On the upside, this gave us the opportunity to poke around the departures area for a few minutes. It is an overwhelmingly exciting place, as can be seen from the photos.

Instead of the fancy Aurora, we ended up with the former HH Ferries vessel, the Mercandia VIII at 11:30. It is much smaller than Aurora, and rather less shiny. It was by far the choppiest crossing I’ve had in several years, and even the coffee was poor (almost unheard of in Scandinavia). The silver lining is that upon arrival in Helsingør, foot passengers disembark through the front of the cabin, providing the below view. I particularly like the juxtaposition of the prominent Danish flag and the Swedish flag-coloured markings on the car deck. In short, the Mercandia is much boatier than the other ferries plying this route – but there is little else going for it.

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Upon arrival in Helsingør, there was an outside chance we could catch a train with a very short connection, and we duly paced our way along the corridors from the ferry. Unfortunately, an obstructive fellow passenger – also rushing but not quickly enough – stopped us from making it. Nevermind! A chance to poke around Helsingør station instead. Seen below is our train on the right, bound for Kalmar on the Baltic coast of Sweden, next to a local service bound for Hillerød.

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Our train made good time into Copenhagen and we got off at Østerport to change onto the Metro, which we took 3 stops to Amagerbro station where I had spotted a lunch opportunity. No decent photos of the metro to share, but I remain impressed by Copenhagen’s interpretation of a metro system, which seems to work very well and has consistently decent ridership. Bear in mind that we were still travelling on the ticket bought from the bus driver in Haverdal at this point! It was about 13:10 when we arrived at Amagerbro, meaning it had taken around 4.5 hours from Haverdal. We might have cut 30-40 minutes off that journey time if we had gone on the direct train from Halmstad, but it would have been far less interesting.

After a rather good lunch at Halifax, the sun had come out, so we decided to walk the 5.5km to the airport through the Amager suburbs. Once we reached the airport, we headed for our usual hang out, the Aviator Lounge, for a quick cup of tea. Normally, it’s been a favourite for the wonderful views of aircraft on the apron and lots of daylight. As it was, the work on the new extension to the terminal meant that the lounge was very dark and that when secured one of the few seats by a window, this was our view…

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Nevermind! We only had 20 minutes to spare, so we set off for the charming F gates shortly after we had finished our tea. Apparently feeling the urge to hurry things along, ground staff were already pushing the Final Call button when we appeared despite the absence of an aircraft, which turned up 10 minutes after we did. It was a decent example of how EasyJet can get it right when they try – the plane spent 28 minutes on stand between arrival and pushback – and both flights were full.

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It was an unremarkable flight, but we got some wonderful views of the Scottish borders and Edinburgh as we approached our destination. Seen below is the Port of Leith.

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We decided we’d take the tram to the city centre on what had turned into a beautiful evening – and it even ran quicker than usual! A quick change onto the number 33 on Princes Street had us home at 19:20 – a door-to-door travel time of just 12 hours (including a leisurely lunch and walk in Copenhagen).

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Buses in rural Sweden: a few recent anecdotes

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‘Hallandstrafiken: the best choice for travel’ reads the destination board on the front of the bus to the right. A recent visit to Haverdal, a rural community north of Halmstad in western Sweden, gave a few thoughts to take away.

The bus service provided to Haverdal is actually very good, with 25 services/day operating into town on weekdays, 12/day on Saturdays and 7/day on Sundays. I suspect there aren’t many rural communities of under 2000 people in the UK that brag a regular service like this. Buses are operated on a franchise basis for the local county public transit provider Hallandstrafiken, with the current franchise-holder being Arriva. While this has led to a number of changes over the years and much discussion in the local press about declining standards, the truth is that to anyone visiting from Britain, the service provided is excellent.

As already noted here, the connection between a lot of arriving trains at Halmstad and the buses is also good – it genuinely does manage to feel like an integrated travel system. On arrival at 7.45pm on a Monday night, we were able to connect smoothly onto an 8.00pm bus and had an unremarkable run out to Haverdal. The quality of the buses is very good, although there is no charging or Wi-Fi – perhaps to follow in future rounds of procurement?

A few observations and anecdotes though. The first being that after we arrived, we went out for a walk in the dark and happened upon the bus an hour later driving down the dark lanes of Haverdal. I stopped to take a photo. On the return from our walk, we found it again, driving in the opposite direction – nice coincidence I though, and I stopped to take another picture. The bus swerved towards me, a pedestrian on the verge on a dark country road and stopped. The driver opened their window and told me in no uncertain terms that photography was not allowed – a bit strange as it definitely is.

On another day, we headed off to nearby Harplinge on foot to get some bread from the excellent bakery. It rained so much that we decided to take the bus home – involving an exciting connection at Haverdalsbro, an interchange in the (relative) middle of nowhere. We jumped on in Harplinge, and the driver seemed so astonished by our requested destination that he in fact didn’t sell us a ticket to it. The driver on the second bus spent some time rectifying the issue, before deciding to let us travel for free. So much for integrated travel…

On our day of departure, the bus into Halmstad was being driven by a driver in the uniform of a different coach company – clearly, in the franchised service era, when there are staffing shortages, drivers can simply be brought in from elsewhere. Bizarrely, she seemed to have a better grasp of providing the best service possible than many of Hallandstrafiken’s in-house drivers. This includes the handy ability to sell tickets from rural Sweden all the way through the Copenhagen.

So, is Hallandstrafiken the best choice for travel? Well, it’s the only choice for travel unless you’re going to take a very expensive taxi, but it’s certainly not a bad choice. Buses are regular and comfortable, pricing is affordable, but the drivers can be a little … odd. I leave you with this rather nice photo of the 350 in Haverdal on a previous (summer) trip.

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Edinburgh to Haverdal

For a variety of reasons, we had booked to spend a week in Haverdal, a rural community north of Halmstad in western Sweden. This was done at short notice, but there were still good fares available a fortnight before departure for travel on EasyJet and we were able to redeem some Nectar points to take advantage of them. A 13:55 departure seems like a pleasant, middle-of-the-day flight but in reality I ended up feeling a little annoyed as we couldn’t really go to work but had to kick our heels during the morning.

In the end, we made a start from the house at about 10:30 and took the 14 to South Bridge. We then stopped in the Milkman for a good cup of coffee to kill a few more minutes, before popping round the corner to catch a 100 to the airport. I’ve already discussed the new buses to the airport,  but one feature I hadn’t noticed previously was the inclusion of live airport departure screens showing flight statuses, which I think is a good touch.

The upside of travelling in the middle of the day is that the airport bus is definitely not impeded in the way it is during the rush hour – we made good time out to the airport. Travelling with hand luggage only, we were able to pop straight upstairs and we were through security in under 5 minutes. While there were teething issues with the new security hall in Edinburgh, it really does seem to have found its rhythm. We headed for our usual hang-out, the No 1 Lounge only to be told it was full. Instead, we headed for the Aspire Lounge, which was so busy it felt like people were hovering waiting to take seats. We eventually found some nice seats by the window where we could watch the buses coming and going outside the terminal. Before long though, we headed for the gate and boarded. Departure was prompt and on-time, and we headed to the west, with a a good – if rainy – view of the three Forth bridges.

We arrived at Copenhagen Airport on time and made quick progress through the terminal. After buying a ticket to Halmstad (a source of frustration is that the Skånetrafiken vending machines won’t sell tickets to bus-only destinations in Halland), we took the first available train across the Öresund Bridge to Malmö. While border controls are no longer in force, the train still stops for an extended wait in Hyllie, which seems a little futile. Our stop at Malmö C gave us time to pick up some groceries and dinner, before we caught our onward train to Halmstad. We had a clear run up and despite picking up some delays in Skåne, we actually arrived in Halmstad on time, demonstrating that there is a fair bit of leeway in the timetable.

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We easily made our 15 minute connection onto the 350 bus to take us to Haverdal. Fortunately, the buses have returned to the bus station (having been in exile on my last visit), making it easy to catch. The ticket sold to us was very cheap – I can only assume that the system calculates what we should have paid to buy a through ticket and charges the difference, but details about this online are scant. While the run to Haverdal drags a little, especially as the bus does a loop through Harplinge, it was quick enough. Living in Edinburgh, it is a novelty to be on buses doing 50mph on dark country roads.

While it felt like the journey dragged out, the door-to-door travel time was only a little over 9 hours. Even if we had driven at the Danish/Swedish end, we wouldn’t have cut much off that.