Touring the Port of Leith

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Waiting to load up
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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.

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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.

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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!

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Another glimpsed vessel.
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On the quay where the buses departed.
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Helsinki Public Transit

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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.

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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.

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A Finnish Pendolino
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Double decker
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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.

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An example of the new tram rolling stock in Helsinki
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Trams old and new
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Looking up the tram from the back seats
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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.

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A typical platform on the metro system
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Metro exterior
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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.

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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.

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Helsinki Central Station

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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Edinburgh-Bath-Edinburgh

IMG_20180307_142908Courtesy of snowmageddon cancelling a trip to London last week, I unexpectedly ended up going to Bath in Somerset a little earlier this week. Given that I was booking just a few days before departure, I was pleased to find that it was possible to book a return trip with EasyJet from Edinburgh to Bristol for just over £60. Capacity is decent on this route, with up to 5 flights per day in each direction – passengers (based on my observations of travelling this route a couple of times) appear to be a mix of business and leisure travellers.

IMG_20180306_091614On Tuesday, various diary clashes meant I had to take a morning outing to Stirling before going to the airport. While the snow was all gone in Edinburgh, I found there was still a lot on the ground in the central belt of Scotland. I ended up on a train earlier than the one I was aiming for, which was fortunate given ScotRail were still struggling to get back up to speed and it transpired the one I had been aiming for was cancelled. Once I was done in Stirling, I got a lift from my father in the car to the Ingliston Park and Ride. My father needed to be at a meeting in central Edinburgh, so then hopped on the tram. Meanwhile, I decided to experiment with walking from the park and ride to Edinburgh Airport. It is all of 2 minutes on the tram from Ingliston to the airport, but the nature of the fare system means it costs £6 for a single. It only took me about 15 minutes to walk it – and there are pavements all the way, even if the route isn’t all that direct. Here is a photo of the exciting trail I followed, and another shot of two trams at the Airport terminus – without me as a passenger.

I was travelling light, and the airport was quiet. This meant I was through security and airside in under 5 minutes – even though I had to remove my shoes. After a quick lunch in the lounge, it was time to head to the gate. It was obvious that there was a fairly light load on my 3pm flight – just 80 passengers according to crew on board. I was seated in a row of three on my own. The flight pushed back on time and was uneventful. In fact, I took the opportunity to listen to the recent Radio 4 documentary Inside the world of the frequent flyer. Well worth a listen if you’re intrigued by the way frequent flyer schemes work. While I had hoped for good views of snow, there was cloud cover almost all the way en route. However, there were great views of the Severn on approach to Bristol. This was great to see, as the last time I flew to Bristol in 2015 I arrived in dense fog and saw nothing from the air!

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IMG_20180310_141805After swift disembarkation, I headed to kerbside outside the terminal to find my onward transport, which was running late. While waiting, I got to see many many passengers board a bus to Plymouth. In contrast, very few people were waiting for the bus to Bath – I would estimate around 12 of us got on at the airport at 4.30pm. The Air Decker is the only operator of bus services from Bristol Airport to Bath – a journey of about 18 miles, which takes a little over an hour. I paid £18 for a return ticket to Bath with a student discount (it’s £20 for normals) – cash only. The buses used on this route vary – on the journey to Bath I benefited from a new double decker with good seats, and multiple tables. The tables featured USB charging (although no on board wifi so I had to use my phone), and given how quiet it was I got to have a table to myself, which was useful for work purposes. On the return journey, the older bus was far less appealing for the worker on the move. Being the middle of rush hour, the bus not only left late but the journey took an age – getting stuck in traffic in all sort of exotic outer suburbs of Bristol as we slowly made our way to Bath. Eventually, however, I made it – and checked into my pleasant but cheap guest house (booked hours earlier using the HotelTonight app – possibly more on that in a future blog.IMG_20180306_163650

IMG_20180307_201358I had a lovely time in Bath, which really is a beautiful city – with lots of good coffee. However, all good outings must eventually come to an end. I hopped on a bus at 7pm heading back to Bristol Airport, which was a much smoother run outside of rush hour. Upon arrival at the airport (just 15 mins before the gate closure time for the final departure of the night from Bristol) I headed up through the deserted terminal and cleared security – along with a handful of other stragglers – in 2 minutes. The gate had just been announced and I headed there, joining the pen. It wasn’t long before we had embarked (via a remarkable looking ramp contraption!) and we were informed we were running 15 minutes early.The flight north was smooth, with great views on a very clear night. Pictured below are the ramp and views of Liverpool.

We arrived in Edinburgh ahead of schedule on a central stand, which meant that from pulling up to the gate to my taxi pulling away took all of 5 minutes. I was home by 10.15pm, which meant I had managed a door-to-door journey from Bath to south Edinburgh in just 3.25 hours. This isn’t necessarily something I’d willingly replicate – I cut it far too fine getting to Bristol Airport – but I was impressed that it could be done. EasyJet really does provide a steady service on the Edinburgh-Bristol route, which can be used in a number of ways. However, I look forward to visiting Bath in future using the train!

 

 

Linköping to Haverdal (South by Lund)

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After a lovely late autumn weekend in and around Linköping (the above photo is taken in the Omberg Ecopark by Lake Vättern), it was time to head back to Haverdal on the west coast. While I had benefitted from sale rates on my outbound journey, I discovered that I was attempting to travel on the final Sunday of the school half term holidays and was stuck with paying full rate for whatever I wanted. The upside of this was that everything – while very expensive – cost about the same, so I could pick and choose based on timings and routings. For the sake of variation from my outbound, I opted to return via the south, using a Linköping-Lund-Halmstad routing.

Having had a lovely day with my hosts, I set off for the station on the first day after the clocks had gone back, realising that sunset would be around the time of my departure at 15:59. I managed to take some lovely photos as I got to the station.

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My train was already running a few minutes late, but it looked simply fantastic as it arrived.

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Once onboard, I had one of the more interesting experiences I’ve had since SJ switched to personalised ticketing a few years ago. I no longer travel with printed tickets, but have the barcode for my booking in the SJ app (more on the app another time, perhaps). A few minutes after departure, the conductor came down through the coach and stopped next to my seat. First he turned to the other passenger who had boarded at Linköping across the aisle from me and said “Are you Sven?” to which the man agreed he was. The conductor then turned to me and said “You must be Ian?” and I also agreed. That was it – that was the ticket check!

 

The train was gradually losing time, and by the time we were on approach to Alvesta (yet another key railway hub in Sweden) the conductor had bad news. Everyone who was hoping to connect to the Öresundståg service to Kalmar was out of luck – we were going to be late enough that it would have departed. The solution – wait for over an hour in the freezing cold. There seemed to be a lot of people who were looking to connect and they didn’t seem very happy. However, just a few minutes later, the conductor came back and said they had spoken to staff at Alvesta who had agreed to hold the Kalmar service for connecting passengers (so please would everyone hurry across the platform upon arrival!). We arrived in Alvesta, and I watched as a lot of people scurried across the platform (see below). What is most striking is that post privatisation in Sweden, this kind of railway-think rarely happens any longer – but it did demonstrate that it is possible to look after the passenger’s best interests.

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We continued to lose time, and by the time we got to Lund we were running over 20 minutes after our scheduled arrival of 18:31. This was only frustrating because I had been banking on having time to grab a hasty dinner in Lund before catching my connection. As it was, I had to make do with a quick stroll around the station before heading to my platform for my onward connection – a fast SJ service to Halmstad.

These are run as SJ 3000s, but are effectively Regina X55s. I’ve been on them a fair few times now and find them to be really pleasant trains to travel on. There’s not much to tell about the run up to Halmstad, which was smooth and on-time.

We arrived at 20:16, which meant I had ample time to pop over the footbridge to the bus station to catch my onward bus connection, scheduled to depart at 20:30. The bus station was deserted, and 20:30 came and went. I checked the usual social media channels to see whether I had a cancellation on my hands, but there was no indication of this. Eventually, the bus pulled up into my bay, unmarked, about 12 minutes late. The driver seemed puzzled, and the bus was freezing. But we set off, with the driver only making two rather confused, unscheduled stops in the middle of Halmstad. What was most peculiar was that once we got up speed, we really got up speed. The driver appeared not to be familiar with the route, being taken by surprise by corners in the road, but also driving much faster than you might expect (I had some idea of what we were doing by tracking the bus through the bus provider app). Suffice to say that despite leaving almost 15 minutes late, I was only 2 minutes late upon arrival in Haverdal. An interesting… experience.

Comparing my outbound and return journeys, both had their merits. I really liked using the direct northbound service from Halmstad to Katrineholm, but using Lund as the connecting point in the south is generally quicker. If travelling this route again in future, I might try the third option, which is to travel with Krösatåg across country from Halmstad to Nässjö, before connecting on to Linköping. Best to cover all the options!

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.