Touring the Port of Leith

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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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MyTaxi launches in Edinburgh

Since I sketched out my thoughts on taxis in Edinburgh, there’s been a shake up, with MyTaxi (formerly Hailo) launching in the city in May. This is a particularly interesting proposition, since it is an existing platform with many customers using the app in other cities. In Edinburgh, MyTaxi have partnered with City Cabs, who are the sole providers of cars for the app. This results in the slightly odd outcome that City Cabs is now providing cars through its own app, as well as that of a ‘competitor’. It also retains the sense of rivalry in the Edinburgh black cab biz, with Central seemingly accepting the warm embrace of Gett.

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The arrival of MyTaxi in Edinburgh has resulted in a marketing blitz, with billboards, press releases, and so on. As well as promo codes being handed out to provide users with £15 of free credit (which, by the way, is what you get through the standard refer-a-friend setup), MyTaxi is offering 1/3 off metered fares until the end of June. Other strokes of marketing genius include the fact that they have settled on a fixed fare to the airport – something I’ve felt has been required for a long time in Edinburgh. The fact they’ve set it at £20 is incredible – while you might pay £20 if you hail a cab on Princes Street, the metered fare from many parts of the city is far higher. This give away is compounded by the fact that for two weeks after launch, they were offering 50% off the airport fare – making airport runs a ludicrous £10.

I’ve used the app a few times now, and have been satisfied. The interface is similar to Gett/City/Uber etc. and streamlines the experience by letting you add a payment card. In practical terms, I’ve used the app to go to the airport twice, return from the airport once, and for a city centre to home run. When using the app to hail a vehicle without pre-planning, it’s clear they are suffering from some availability issues. It’s unclear whether all City Cabs cars are on the system, or only those who have opted in. I waited for more than 10 minutes in the middle of the day for a cab to go to the airport. On the other occasion, when I pre-booked, my cab arrived on time as would be expected. Booking from the airport worked, but the pick up zone is a forgotten corner of the multi storey car park and is atrociously signed from the terminal – I’m familiar with the airport but had never seen it, and had to ask for directions. This will very probably need to change. Hailing a cab in central Edinburgh (within eyesight of a cab rank, as an experiment), I discovered there was no driver nearby willing to take me – my driver came from a mile away and I waited for quite a few minutes.

It’s clear that availability will be an issue – users will expect cars to be available, particularly at times that shouldn’t be all that busy. But more interesting will be how long the fixed fare to the airport lasts. I will be directing all my airport business at MyTaxi for the time being – the rate is unbeatable. However, it has been clear from chatting to drivers that they are unhappy with the rate, which they consider too low. In booking, I’ve had drivers cancel (the app shows this), presumably due to the fixed rate. Quite how things will pan out once the marketing budget has been spent by MyTaxi remains to be seen.

2018 so far

IMG_20180328_084930TransportIan has been suffering from something of a lull during 2018, excused by a particularly strenuous period of work in January followed by the joys of moving home in March and April. Having believed that I would have substantially more time to write on the blog once other projects were out of the way, I have found instead that it was operating as a safety valve during periods of stress and that some of that activity has been directed elsewhere in recent months.

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With one of my last posts being a travel review of 2017, I thought I would take the opportunity to briefly round up a few thoughts one what I’ve been doing – hopefully inspiring more posts to come. January and February were very low activity months from a travel perspective. In January, travel was limited to returning from a brief New Year in Cheshire by rail (with a happy over-supply of whisky in a deserted first class carriage) and 24 hours spent in Stirling by the usual means. February was even quiet on the travel front – I did not leave Edinburgh. Plans were slowly being hatched, however. I had been due to visit London on 1 March, which was cancelled by snowmageddon. This led to a surprise substitute trip to Bath in Somerset just a few days later – the only blog to have been written this year thus far.

As noted in my round up of 2017, the only certainty for 2018 was that at least a couple of trips to London were in the diary. The first of these to successfully occur was in the final week of March, when I was in the capital for three days. This trip was remarkable for a couple of reasons – it was the first time I had travelled down to London on a daytime train in almost 18 months – and I almost ended up missing the sleeper home thanks to issues on the tube network on the evening of my departure.

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Just a couple of weeks later, I was back in London, and got the chance to make my first consistent (useful) use of the London Overground. Additionally, my budget accommodation directly above Wembley Central station shook every time a high speed Pendolino passed through below! Three weeks later, I was back in London again – this time making use of the recently reinstated Ryanair service to Stansted after its winter blockade. In both cases, I returned on the sleeper.

IMG_20180413_220938There’s lots going on in the above – not least the news that Virgin Trains East Coast is no more – to be placed by LNER in June. You’ll notice the multiple trips on the Caledonian Sleeper – now with a new pricing structure, check in procedure and approach to catering – but still no new rolling stock. I keep assuming I’m about to take my final trip on the old stock, only to end up travelling on it again.

IMG_20180517_110227Just a week ago I was in southern Sweden for a brief visit which involved lots of toing and froing on trains and buses, including an exciting (and intentional diversion) on the way home. And these words are being written from seat 29A on BA93 to Toronto. More on both of these hopefully to follow soon.

PS: I mentioned plans to write up blogs from my trip to Hong Kong in December – I haven’t forgotten about this, but time pressure means it has rather fallen by the wayside. I hope to get round to it – notes were taken at the time!

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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!

 

 

Taxis in Edinburgh

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All too often, I end up in the back of a taxi cab to or from the airport at times when any sane person is in bed.

I thought I would post a few thoughts about taxis in Edinburgh to mark my one-year-anniversary of (sporadically) using Gett. Edinburgh has traditionally used black hackney cabs, which are now dominated by City Cabs and Central Cabs, with the remainder made up by independent street cars. Nowadays, there are obviously plenty of minicab operators out there, with Capital Cars being the biggest provider. More recently, these have been joined by Uber and Gett. What strikes me as most peculiar is the fact that the rates for all of these are set by the City of Edinburgh Council. Consequently, what you pay is effectively the same across the board – with some minor variations.

I tend to use City Cabs for bookings from home, as it is easy to make a booking via their app (or on the phone) and they turn up. The app is a little idiosyncratic – it was recently ‘relaunched’ which meant I had to re-register to keep using it. But it comes with what you would expect. There’s GPS and live tracking of cars and you can arrange card payment through the app and so on. For me, the most useful thing is that a booking made in advance generates a confirmation email, which makes it feel more certain than simply an app-based system. City all, theoretically, take cards for payment, but they still charge 5% for this. You also run into the occasional driver who doesn’t want to, or whose card reader isn’t on or working. Most of the cabs also have free onboard WiFi, although I haven’t tried this as I rely on my own 4G. In terms of the vehicles used, it’s the usual range of black hackney cabs, although I would say that cabs in Edinburgh are typically newer and of a better standard than in many other provincial towns and cities outside of London. City often end up being the ride home as well, as they hold the contract to provide vehicles for the cab rank at the airport. This is something they struggle with at times, as they often have insufficient cars available late at night.

I’ve taken to using Gett for most other, smaller journeys around Edinburgh by taxi. I find the app is easy to use, the ability to update and amend journey details while the journey is taking place is a bonus, and paying by card through the app automatically speeds up arrival. (I suppose this sounds like Uber!) However, drivers are street car providers – which means they’re licensed black cabs but not with any radio support. Traditionally, they would drive around town waiting to be hailed, and Gett is an updated version of this. The cabs tend to be a little older than those used by City, but drivers still know what they’re doing and where they’re going. Oddly, Central Taxis often have cars providing Gett services. The biggest frustration is that there are often no cars available at all – you cannot solely rely on Gett. This is a big part of why I have not yet attempted to book a cab with Gett in advance for anything ‘important’ (like an early morning airport run).

As I found a couple of weeks ago, hailing cabs still works just fine. We were in the Old Town and needed to be at the Foot of the Walk in Leith 5 minutes ago. A cab going the wrong way was hailed, and despite it being a tricky route to navigate due to the closure of Leith Street, it made good time without needing directions or prompting. On the flipside, cars like this rarely take card payments – so you will need cash with you.

So what don’t I use? Well, I’ve tended to avoid minicabs, even from the big providers. I have an inherent preference for black cabs, whose drivers (in Edinburgh at least) tend to have a good sense for the city and don’t need directions. We may not have The Knowledge in Edinburgh, but drivers need to know a lot if they’re not to spend all day in traffic jams. Nominally, the minicab providers can only charge the same as the black cabs – in practice most run various discount schemes, although on those few occasions I have used them, they never seem  cheaper. The most common occasion for using them is from the airport if there are no black cabs available, where they offer no discounts at all. Uber, which is, in Edinburgh-terms, simply another minicab company, is something I’ve avoided. They aren’t cheaper and there have been reports of availability issues in Edinburgh. While the app-based system appeals to me, the way that Uber conducts business and treats people does not – as I have a choice I’ve exercised it.

Despite having many, many taxis, Edinburgh does suffer from availability issues. As already noted, the airport is problematic. They struggle to drum up enough black cabs to come to the airport (pick ups are expensive due to airport charges and the distance from the city, while drivers are concerned they may only get a low value job to South Gyle). This often leads to long queues in the evenings. Sometimes, the solution is to use the minicab ‘rank’ – an office will take your advance booking, but is often able to allocate you a car that happens to be standing outside. This has paid off on some occasions, but recently I arrived at 11pm on a Sunday evening to find that it too had a huge queue and no cars. The airport is worst for this, but the railway stations also suffer from the same difficulties.

I suspect I’m going to keep up the same approach I’ve been using. As of October 2017, I no longer have a Ridacard for use on Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams (more on that in future), which has meant that I now evaluate each local trip I need to make on the basis of cost/speed/convenience. City Cabs works well for pre-booked trips, while a mixture of City, Gett and hailing cabs works for everything else. I’d like to see the airport work out a way of getting its contracted taxi providers to get more vehicles out there, especially at peak times, but I suspect there’s more chance of pigs flying.

Late evening departures from Copenhagen

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Two recent trips to Sweden have seen me return on late evening departures from Copenhagen. In both instances, the primary draw has been the departure time itself, with the added benefit that the fares have been highly affordable. In early November, I was booked onto Ryanair’s 22:50 departure to Stansted on a Wednesday night. In late November, I was on the 22:05 service to Edinburgh on a Sunday night.

IMG_20171101_211229For the first trip, I did it all from Haverdal by public transport. I didn’t have to leave the house until just after 6pm, and I took the bus to Halmstad. (After the only other passengers got off in the town centre, the driver turned off the GPS and drove me to the station front door instead of the bus station!). I ended up on a delayed Pågatåg to Helsingborg, where I then changed onto an Öresund train on to Copenhagen Airport. A perfectly smooth run, and I did Haverdal to the airport in 3 hours flat. Unsurprisingly, the airport was more or less dead. The lounges close early in Copenhagen, so I was left to wander the rather eery terminal before heading out to the F gates, which were similarly quiet. The Stansted flight was the last to go. After a rapid turnaround of the inbound aircraft, we made an on time departure, and actually arrived at Stansted 30 minutes early. Fortunately, my booked minicab had arrived early, and I was in my cosy Travelodge in Finchley before 1am. Under 8 hours from rural Sweden to north London seems good, especially as I managed a full writing day beforehand.

The second trip in November actually saw me leave at around the same time – 6pm – but this time in a taxi. I could probably have gone later, as the taxi to town was very fast. I put myself on a fast SJ service to Malmö, where I then changed onto an Öresund for the final hop across the sound. I managed to get it down to 2.5 hours from Haverdal to the airport, really not bad. The terminal was busier this time, but still not a patch on other occasions. Ryanair once again delivered a fairly prompt departure that had us in Edinburgh ahead of schedule. In true Edinburgh fashion, we were put onto buses to the border, which meant I was slowed down a bit. However, even after a wait there and for a cab, I made it home just before midnight. Door-to-door from Haverdal to Edinburgh in under 7 hours is pretty great – and even better given that I was able to do a full day on the ground in Sweden before leaving.

I always have mixed feelings about late flights – on the one hand, it can be exhausting to be up late, especially if delays occur. On the other hand, the benefit in terms of more daytime for other activities, and cheaper fares, often makes it worth considering. In both these cases it served me well. The biggest downside was the need to sort out a car transfer from Stansted (which went off without a hitch, as it turned out), while in Edinburgh you know that any late international arrival will see you waiting for ages at passport control and that cabs are hard to come by. In conclusion though, I was glad to discover that the travel experience can be streamlined somewhat, and I was really pleased not to have to surrender 8 hours from the middle of my day.

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.