This 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.
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.
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.
Unstaffed 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.
Our 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!