Sleepless on the sleeper: Euston to Edinburgh

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And before I knew it, my visit to London was almost over. I had booked the sleeper to ensure I had time for evening plans after a working day. As it happened, the final stop of my evening was the champagne bar at St Pancras. It’s a wonderful setting by the snoozing Eurostars which almost makes the outrageous price of the drinks worth it. A short stroll to Euston later and I trotted along to platform 1 for the 23:50 Caledonian Sleeper. It was dead quiet – since they started letting passengers board from 22:00, most folk are often on board and in their beds by 23:00. I stepped aboard about 8 minutes before departure and found my steward. We had a lovely chat and I was very impressed to be addressed by name. Little did I know…

My first class ticket meant I wasn’t sharing. I’ve met some great people on the sleeper when travelling by standard, but I prefer a room to myself. On this occasion, the price differential was only £20. I popped along to the lounge car to get a whisky to go and settled down for a few minutes on my berth. It took me a while to nod off – and I was still up when we went through Milton Keynes. Earplugs ensured I eventually drifted off.

Little did I know that by arriving late for boarding, I waived my right to sleep! All the good wake up calls are distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis. In the past I’ve had success in requesting a late wake up call by asking for my breakfast to go. On this occasion I had forgotten. I was woken up at 06:00 – giving me almost 90 minutes to consume my scrambled eggs and stare out of the window. On balance, I would have preferred another hour of sleep – but nevermind! We managed an on-time arrival into Waverley, and I hit the platform before we had stopped courtesy of an eager conductor unlocking the central door system early. I was home by 08:00, having a hot shower and drinking a strong cup of coffee.

I haven’t slept this badly on the sleeper in some time – I normally revel in being smug about how well I do sleep on the Callie. I didn’t help matters by arriving quite so late for the train in the first place, and it became clear in the morning that this had shortened my night at the other end too. That being said, I still like the Caledonian Sleeper, which is the only true way of having an evening in London before going back to Scotland. Since the switch to Serco from First, the hard product has improved dramatically. (The soft product was always great – I love the crews). It’s rare that I feel irrational levels of brand loyalty, but when I get on the Callie at Euston, I feel like I am home.

Optimising southeast London to King’s Cross: some August experimentation

Having made my way to Plumstead, conversation with my hosts naturally turned to the best routes to central London. I knew I needed to be at the British Library for opening time at 09:30 in the morning. My friend had one suggestion, her partner a different one, Citymapper preferred three other alternatives. None of them were the one I would choose by default.

On my first morning, I set off on foot heading for Plumstead station. Obviously I had the chance to take in the sights as I went.

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I was a regular visitor to this part of the world in 2012 when my partner lived a couple of minutes from Woolwich Dockyard station, so I have views on how best to get to zone 1 and I thought I would try that out. A brisk 10 minute walk had me on the platform at Plumstead for the 08:12 to Cannon Street. While this was peak rush hour, I still secured a seat. We had a smooth run in to London, although it served as a reminder of quite how slow it could feel. Vast swathes of passengers got off at Greenwich, presumably to interchange onto other transport.

Of course, past me would have got off at London Bridge, which is currently closed. We passed through slowly so I got a good look at the work going on – it looks like it will be a genuine improvement once it’s done. The upside of going to Cannon Street is the lovely view as you cross the river. The downside is that it takes an age to exit the station, and I needed to get onto the Northern Line at Bank, which took ages. By the time I got to the British Library, I was hot, sticky and tired – despite the run into Cannon Street having been smooth. It took about 80 minutes door to door.

2017-08-03 22.29.30-2In the evening, I ended up having dinner with a friend the Westfield Stratford City. Suffice to say that I know getting on the Central Line at Oxford Circus at 17:30 is a stupid idea, but I gave it a go anyway. It is a little surreal to queue at street level for 5 minutes to enter a station that is then functioning adequately below ground. The train was even tolerable once everyone got out at Liverpool Street. My route back to Plumstead was a little different – my friend drove me from Stratford to Pontoon Dock. There as no one there… I was alarmed. Fortunately, I didn’t wait long for my DLR to Woolwich Arsenal. It was a busy train – it’s really gratifying to see that the Arsenal extension is being so well used even late on a school night. In Woolwich, I jumped in a cab as the buses were a long time off – a black cab in what was once upon a time minicab territory.

The next morning – my final one in Plumstead – I tried one of my host’s suggestions for getting to the British Library. Once again, I caught the 08:12 from Plumstead, but I got off at Woolwich Arsenal. Citymapper told me I had two minutes for the connection, and when I saw a group of seasoned looking commuters running I drafted in behind them. I stayed on the DLR as far as West Ham, where I plodded over to the tube platform to catch the Hammersmith and City line to King’s Cross. I made good connections throughout the journey, and despite it being rush hour I got a seat on every leg. Door-to-door I managed the journey in 65 minutes: an excellent outcome. I sent my heartfelt thanks to my hosts.

Of course, there are plenty of other options I could have tried. Citymapper was particularly keen for me to either take a bus from Plumstead to North Greenwich for the Jubilee line, or to follow the same route I took on my second morning but staying on the DLR to Stratford International and then taking the Javelin to St Pancras. While the Javelin was tempting, the cost doesn’t get included in the daily cap. And perhaps it’s worth trying one of the dafter options, such as the Thames Clipper from Woolwich Arsenal or the Dangleway.

What would you have done?

Edinburgh to Plumstead

A recent work trip to London was required. I knew I needed a full day on the ground, so I needed to travel the day before. Despite booking six weeks out, the sleeper was already out of reach and the cost of tickets on normal trains were already high so I looked at air travel. Prices here were similarly high for anything that suited me (departing late enough to give me a work day in Edinburgh but arriving early enough to do stuff in London in the evening), with the additional qualification that I was going to stay with a friend in Plumstead in southeast London. I ended up looking at what my avios could get me on British Airways to London City. The result: the 16:30 BA8707 from Edinburgh to London City Airport.

Fast forward and I spent the morning in the university in George Square, before leaving at 13:15. I walked down to Waverley Bridge, weaving through the pre-Festival crowds and avoiding serious injury from a range of inappropriate luggage. Airlink Express have taken delivery of new buses, which look very regal. I especially like the addition of sunroofs the length of the upper deck. There are a number of practical adjustments on these: most notably the addition of extra luggage racks downstairs. Sadly, for those of us who liked to work on board, the handful of tables that were on the previous vehicles are gone. I didn’t wait long to depart, and the run out to the airport was the daytime regulation 30 minutes, getting me there for 14:00.

I had only been able to secure a business class ticket with my avios, but this was why I arrived quite so early. I made use of my fast track security channel, but in reality I needn’t have bothered as the security hall was quiet. I was through in under five minutes and on my way to the British Airways Galleries Lounge. Plenty of people have written more and taken better photos than me, but suffice to say it’s a very nice lounge. I settled down for some lunch and to do some work in the business centre.

Time slipped by and before long it was time to head off for boarding onto our dinky Embraer 170 for a full flight. The business cabin (same seats, just a curtain to separate you from the normals) was full – loaded with three real passengers and five re-positioning crew. We got away on time, and it’s always a pleasure to take off on the Embraers, which have a lot of power for such little aircraft. Being business class, I was handed an actual menu. I was also plied with more champagne than can possibly have been sensible in the middle of the afternoon (I did not drink it all!). Had a pleasant chat with the pilot in the seat beside me – it transpired we had three mutual acquaintances.

The weather at City wasn’t great, but there were some good views of Plumstead/Woolwich/Shooter’s Hill to be had on finals. We were on stand quickly and it took just a few minutes for me to get onto the DLR heading for Woolwich Arsenal. I spent quite a bit of time in Woolwich in 2012 and the place really has changed a great deal since – particularly thanks to the Royal Arsenal development and the impending arrival of Crossrail. After some hipster pizza in Woolwich with my friend, the journey to Plumstead was completed courtesy of the number 51 bus.

It was a remarkably smooth journey, and one which demonstrates the absolute strength of City Airport. When there are no delays, it is a fantastic airport to arrive at – finals from either direction are spectacular, and the proximity of the DLR station is a huge bonus. For southeast London, this is unbeatable, and I would have been hard pushed to come close to matching my travel time had I gone by rail. As for British Airways business class on domestic flights, I’m on the fence. It was nice and all – but I was always perfectly happy with the previous all-economy arrangement for Anglo-Scottish flights.

Thoughts on connections between southeast London and central London, as well as on my return journey to Edinburgh on the Caledonian Sleeper, to follow.

The curse of Virgin Trains East Coast 19:25 from Edinburgh to Stirling

Earlier this week, circumstance presented me with an opportunity to re-run my abortive attempt to travel on the 19:25 from Edinburgh to Stirling a few weeks ago. Little did I know that I would manage to get caught up in the palaver of a signalling fault between Polmont and Falkirk Grahamston. You can see the full series of updates from the usual suspects – and the ensuing confusion, by following the #polmont hashtag on Twitter. Suffice to say that I had the impression that the issue had been resolved by the time I set out, but this was not to be the case.

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Having learnt from last time, I left the house at 18:50 and missed the 14 I was aiming for by just a whisker. I ended up on the 2 running a few minutes behind, which enjoyed a non-stop run up the hill towards Newington. The 2 doesn’t go to Waverley, and I managed a swift change onto a 3 on South Clerk Street – unusually the stop was deserted, so I really did have to leap off and look eager for the bus behind. In the picture you can see my 2 taken from the ‘driver’s seat’ of the 3. The 3 made good progress, despite the festival crowds, and I was inside Waverley station by 19:10.

It was at this stage that it became apparent that all was not well on the signalling front. The 19:33 Scotrail service to Dunblane was cancelled – and the 19:25 to Stirling was showing as delayed to run in the 19:33 path. Not to worry – a few minutes’ delay is dealable with.

2017-08-07 19.22.45I made my way along to platform 2 and the train arrived on time at 19:20. It obviously took a while to expel the hoards of festival-goers, but I was on fairly promptly and settled down at a table. The cancelled Dunblane service had generated extra passengers, so it was busier than expected, although by no means close to full. The slightly puzzled guard mentioned the signalling issues, and also noted that Scotrail smart cards would be accepted.

We got away at around 19:35 and made very slow progress as far as Ratho/Newbridge, where we pulled into a passing loop and the guard told us the happy news that signalling in Polmont had once again failed, with no prognosis for the length of the delay. As it happened, we were only at a standstill for around ten minutes before we were back on the move – but progress as far as Falkirk was glacial – we didn’t arrive there until around 20:35! The run from Falkirk through to Stirling was as it should be – swift – and with some wonderful August evening skies.

A quick walk had me at my destination a little after nine. A definite improvement on the last time I tried this route – but still over two hours door-to-door.

On the grape vine, I gather that the 19:25 from Edinburgh to Stirling – a recent addition to the timetable to give Stirling an extra King’s Cross train each day in addition to the Highland Chieftain – is particular prone to cancellation from Edinburgh onwards. Presumably, the rake goes straight back to Edinburgh after terminating in Stirling, and when running late it is easier to let Scotrail take the strain?

An easy journey made difficult

You would think that a journey of 41 miles by road in Scotland’s densely populated central belt, which should take no more than 55 minutes in a car, would be just as easy by public transport. On a recent, beautiful July evening this was not the case.

I left the house just after 7pm, aiming to catch the 7.33pm to Stirling. Lothian Buses put in their finest performance and no bus was forthcoming at my local stop until 7.20pm.

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Not to worry! Lothian Buses tend to be fairly swift outside of peak hours. Not on this occasion, unfortunately. Despite having arrived ‘late’ by my estimation, we dawdled all the way to North Bridge – presumably the driver’s ticker declaring that we were ‘early’ meant that we needed to waste time.

A quick trot down the Scotman’s steps brought me to the station at 7.35pm. The 7.33pm was long gone – never mind. I knew that the 7.25pm Virgin East Coast service was delayed – that would do. In the meantime, I waited on a sunny platform 8.

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It was clearly one of those evenings. The 7.25pm service was getting later and later. I fielded multiple questions from confused passengers on the platform. ‘Yes, it is okay to wait here – it will be a long train.’ ‘Yes, you can you use a GroupSave ticket on this service. No, we are not in peak hours – it’s almost 8 o’clock. Am I sure? Well I don’t work on the railway…’ Yet further delay. Eventually, it rolled into the station – almost sheepishly – at 8.10pm.

 

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Despite some reservations about the end destination being non-existent, I boarded and settled down in a deserted carriage. Excellent – a full table – forward travel by the window – to myself. Unfortunately it was not to be. At 8.20pm the service was cancelled on technical grounds, having gone nowhere. So much for that – at least I got to play with the slam doors. This gave me just enough time to trot through the station to catch the 8.33pm, where the silver lining was that the rolling stock featured a first class compartment – mine to use as Dunblane services do not feature first class meaning the compartment is derestricted.

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It wasn’t all bad. Being a full hour later than expected, Scotland’s central belt was looking rather splendid.2017-07-17 21.14.39

It was a smooth run through to Stirling, with some idling at each stop indicating we were making good time. After arriving a full minute early, a brisk walk through the quiet streets of Stirling – still beautifully light – had me at my destination by 9.45pm. Just 2 hours and 40 minutes after leaving home.2017-07-17 21.41.18

It’s fortunate I was in no hurry to get anywhere! It was clearly not Virgin’s week, given that the next morning I had planned to catch the 10.30am King’s Cross service but noted hours beforehand that it had been cancelled between Inverness and Edinburgh – leaving me to make haste to catch the preceding Scotrail service. Still, it’s the middle of July – who needs to be anywhere?