Last week I had to go to Aberdeen for a conference. This trip had been on the cards for almost a year, and I had put a fair amount of thought into how I wanted to travel there. The choices are not infinite though, and I have no particular interest in trying any of the road options on what is a fairly long drive. This left me with a choice between Scotrail, Virgin Trains East Coast or Crosscountry Trains. Scotrail naturally have the upper hand in offering the most services, while the other two offer better, long-distance rolling stock. At T-12 weeks, the choice was made easier by the fact that Virgin were selling 1st class tickets with railcard discounts for £18 one way – a very reasonable fare given the journey time of 2.5 hours and the standard of the soft product. I duly booked myself a round trip on Virgin.
On the morning of travel, I was up far too early given my train wasn’t until 10:28, so after having done some work at home, I ended up heading into central Edinburgh early to look for some breakfast. Despite killing time there, I still ended up at the station almost 40 minutes early. Fortunately, I was travelling with colleagues for the outbound leg, and one had already arrived so I wasn’t lonely. Once we had all assembled, we headed for our platform to find the train just arriving from Leeds.
We piled on an made ourselves at home. My colleagues, who hadn’t been expecting to travel in 1st (I was in charge of travel arrangements) were pleasantly surprised. While the refurbished hard product on these trains looks the business, I have to say that in comfort terms it is a reduction in quality on what they had previously. Nonetheless, it’s a very pleasant setting to be in for a couple of hours on a weekday morning. This was improved by the friendly 1st class service – I find the Scotland-based crews for the Aberdeen and Inverness services are amongst the best out there. Despite the relatively early departure time, we were on a lunch menu – but with no hot items. Sandwiches and beer were the order of the day – and completely fine at that.
We made a good run going north. The weather in Edinburgh was changeable – August showers! Below on the left you can see the old Forth road bridge and the new Queensferry Crossing, as well as the somewhat cloudy weather. By the time we were crossing the Tay it was much foggier. No further photos were taken further north, as there was nothing to actually see. Aberdeen itself was obscured by some of the most miserable, stickiest mist I’ve ever encountered.
We arrived in Aberdeen a few minutes early, as the timetable has some fairly generous recovery time built in north of Dundee. A slow amble through the station/shopping mall had us at the bus station as we were heading for Hillhead, the home of Aberdeen’s student halls of residence. Google informed us that we would get there quickest on a Buchan Xpress, and using our plusbus tickets we duly tested the theory. It was certainly not a disappointing bus experience (note the 3/1 split of seats on the front row in the photo), although it seems a little peculiar to spend the first 500 metres creeping through the city centre picking up passengers like it is a local service. However, it did pick up the pace and got us where we were going in the time Google told us.
A few more, brief thoughts on the buses in Aberdeen. It’s a fairly well-provisioned city in terms of buses, although there are some issues. Perhaps the key one is the competition of multiple operators, meaning that – plusbus aside – you can’t buy a day ticket to cover them all. First Buses, responsible for running the 20 between the university and the city centre, was operating a limited timetable that stopped at 7pm – not much use for anyone wanting to get back at night. And, like in Edinburgh, the focus on Union Street for all bus routes seemed a little pointless at times. On the other hand, the ability of First to accept contactless payments puts them well ahead of many operators around the UK.
Aberdeen is a mixed place – it looks like Scotland but it feels different. It’s by the sea, but it takes ages to walk to the beach. It wasn’t long before the conference was over and it was time to head south again, this time on the 14:52 headed for London Kings Cross. I won’t repeat material, as much of the service was the same as on the northbound. One difference was that the lunch service included hot options, and I had a very pleasant courgette risotto (at half past three in the afternoon…) with a crisp glass of white wine. The crew were excellent, and I remember them from previous occasions in the east of Scotland. As is often the case on this route, the time flew by and it wasn’t long before we were back in Edinburgh – on time – having enjoyed the panorama of fantastic sea views for much of the journey.
I suppose on a future visit to the north east, it would be worth trying one of the competing options for the sake of comparison, but in terms of price point and comfort, Virgin is currently the standout option when heading north of Edinburgh on the east coast.