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…

IMG_20170923_112834_01

Meanwhile, we captured this beauty at the top of London Road.

IMG_20170923_115142

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.

IMG_20170923_130129

Some buses seemed to be a long way from home…

IMG_20170923_130135

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.

Advertisements

Haverdal to Edinburgh via Denmark

IMG_20170911_083242Our trip to rainy, rural Sweden was almost at an end and decisions had to be made about how to get ourselves back home to Edinburgh. Unlike on the way, we had most of the day to make our way to Copenhagen airport for a 17:05 departure to Edinburgh. We settled on using the Helsingborg-Helsingør ferry as a variation on the direct train. It is possible to buy a through ticket from the bus driver when boarding at our local stop all the way to Copenhagen – and by either the ferry or bridge route. Our driver hadn’t sold a “via ferry” ticket before, but it didn’t stop her from doing so! You even save around £2 per person by buying the ferry option. So, we joined the 08:41 to Halmstad, which is fairly busy bus – including passengers going to Halmstad Airport for flights to Stockholm. Despite several passengers needing to top up their travel cards onboard (ourselves included), we made good progress to town and arrived at the bus station just 3 minutes behind schedule.

This gave us ample time to loiter at a rather grey, chilly Halmstad station. What do you do once you’ve consumed your coffee and bun from the ubiquitous Pressbyrån? Why, you wander around the platforms watching the other trains come and go. Halmstad is where the fast SJ services bypass the slow Öresundståg services – and it is quite impressive to watch it happen. The SJ train arrives just a couple of minutes behind the stopper, and manages to be away in around 90 seconds (no platform dispatchers in Halmstad either, so this is all done by the conductor).

IMG_20170911_095301

Eventually, our train, the 10:12 turned up. It was pink! (In Helsingborg, they join a second set on which was green on this occasion!). We managed to secure seats, which isn’t always a given on these trains. The journey was unremarkable until just north of Helsingborg, where there remains a stretch of single track – we had to wait for a delayed northbound train, and the minutes ticked away. So much so that we did not make our connection to the Scandlines Aurora in Helsingborg.

On the upside, this gave us the opportunity to poke around the departures area for a few minutes. It is an overwhelmingly exciting place, as can be seen from the photos.

Instead of the fancy Aurora, we ended up with the former HH Ferries vessel, the Mercandia VIII at 11:30. It is much smaller than Aurora, and rather less shiny. It was by far the choppiest crossing I’ve had in several years, and even the coffee was poor (almost unheard of in Scandinavia). The silver lining is that upon arrival in Helsingør, foot passengers disembark through the front of the cabin, providing the below view. I particularly like the juxtaposition of the prominent Danish flag and the Swedish flag-coloured markings on the car deck. In short, the Mercandia is much boatier than the other ferries plying this route – but there is little else going for it.

IMG_20170911_115311

Upon arrival in Helsingør, there was an outside chance we could catch a train with a very short connection, and we duly paced our way along the corridors from the ferry. Unfortunately, an obstructive fellow passenger – also rushing but not quickly enough – stopped us from making it. Nevermind! A chance to poke around Helsingør station instead. Seen below is our train on the right, bound for Kalmar on the Baltic coast of Sweden, next to a local service bound for Hillerød.

IMG_20170911_120407

Our train made good time into Copenhagen and we got off at Østerport to change onto the Metro, which we took 3 stops to Amagerbro station where I had spotted a lunch opportunity. No decent photos of the metro to share, but I remain impressed by Copenhagen’s interpretation of a metro system, which seems to work very well and has consistently decent ridership. Bear in mind that we were still travelling on the ticket bought from the bus driver in Haverdal at this point! It was about 13:10 when we arrived at Amagerbro, meaning it had taken around 4.5 hours from Haverdal. We might have cut 30-40 minutes off that journey time if we had gone on the direct train from Halmstad, but it would have been far less interesting.

After a rather good lunch at Halifax, the sun had come out, so we decided to walk the 5.5km to the airport through the Amager suburbs. Once we reached the airport, we headed for our usual hang out, the Aviator Lounge, for a quick cup of tea. Normally, it’s been a favourite for the wonderful views of aircraft on the apron and lots of daylight. As it was, the work on the new extension to the terminal meant that the lounge was very dark and that when secured one of the few seats by a window, this was our view…

IMG_20170911_155213

Nevermind! We only had 20 minutes to spare, so we set off for the charming F gates shortly after we had finished our tea. Apparently feeling the urge to hurry things along, ground staff were already pushing the Final Call button when we appeared despite the absence of an aircraft, which turned up 10 minutes after we did. It was a decent example of how EasyJet can get it right when they try – the plane spent 28 minutes on stand between arrival and pushback – and both flights were full.

IMG_20170911_163524

It was an unremarkable flight, but we got some wonderful views of the Scottish borders and Edinburgh as we approached our destination. Seen below is the Port of Leith.

IMG_20170911_184518

We decided we’d take the tram to the city centre on what had turned into a beautiful evening – and it even ran quicker than usual! A quick change onto the number 33 on Princes Street had us home at 19:20 – a door-to-door travel time of just 12 hours (including a leisurely lunch and walk in Copenhagen).

IMG_20170911_182100

Edinburgh to Haverdal

For a variety of reasons, we had booked to spend a week in Haverdal, a rural community north of Halmstad in western Sweden. This was done at short notice, but there were still good fares available a fortnight before departure for travel on EasyJet and we were able to redeem some Nectar points to take advantage of them. A 13:55 departure seems like a pleasant, middle-of-the-day flight but in reality I ended up feeling a little annoyed as we couldn’t really go to work but had to kick our heels during the morning.

In the end, we made a start from the house at about 10:30 and took the 14 to South Bridge. We then stopped in the Milkman for a good cup of coffee to kill a few more minutes, before popping round the corner to catch a 100 to the airport. I’ve already discussed the new buses to the airport,  but one feature I hadn’t noticed previously was the inclusion of live airport departure screens showing flight statuses, which I think is a good touch.

The upside of travelling in the middle of the day is that the airport bus is definitely not impeded in the way it is during the rush hour – we made good time out to the airport. Travelling with hand luggage only, we were able to pop straight upstairs and we were through security in under 5 minutes. While there were teething issues with the new security hall in Edinburgh, it really does seem to have found its rhythm. We headed for our usual hang-out, the No 1 Lounge only to be told it was full. Instead, we headed for the Aspire Lounge, which was so busy it felt like people were hovering waiting to take seats. We eventually found some nice seats by the window where we could watch the buses coming and going outside the terminal. Before long though, we headed for the gate and boarded. Departure was prompt and on-time, and we headed to the west, with a a good – if rainy – view of the three Forth bridges.

We arrived at Copenhagen Airport on time and made quick progress through the terminal. After buying a ticket to Halmstad (a source of frustration is that the Skånetrafiken vending machines won’t sell tickets to bus-only destinations in Halland), we took the first available train across the Öresund Bridge to Malmö. While border controls are no longer in force, the train still stops for an extended wait in Hyllie, which seems a little futile. Our stop at Malmö C gave us time to pick up some groceries and dinner, before we caught our onward train to Halmstad. We had a clear run up and despite picking up some delays in Skåne, we actually arrived in Halmstad on time, demonstrating that there is a fair bit of leeway in the timetable.

IMG_20170904_194709

We easily made our 15 minute connection onto the 350 bus to take us to Haverdal. Fortunately, the buses have returned to the bus station (having been in exile on my last visit), making it easy to catch. The ticket sold to us was very cheap – I can only assume that the system calculates what we should have paid to buy a through ticket and charges the difference, but details about this online are scant. While the run to Haverdal drags a little, especially as the bus does a loop through Harplinge, it was quick enough. Living in Edinburgh, it is a novelty to be on buses doing 50mph on dark country roads.

While it felt like the journey dragged out, the door-to-door travel time was only a little over 9 hours. Even if we had driven at the Danish/Swedish end, we wouldn’t have cut much off that.

Edinburgh-Durham-Edinburgh

Last weekend we headed to Durham to celebrate a friend’s wedding. We travelled down on a Friday to ensure we weren’t rushed. My partner wanted to visit the Open Treasure exhibition at Durham Cathedral, which called for a departure earlier than mid-afternoon. I enjoy nothing more than a hot breakfast on the train while cantering through East Lothian and then down the coast, so we booked ourselves onto the 09:00 departure for King’s Cross in 1st class (£20.65 each with a railcard). Despite being rush hour, we had an unusually quick run into the city centre on the 33 giving us time to find fancy coffee before departure.

2017-09-01 09.50.30

We settled into two of my favourite seats, L27 & 29. Window/aisle, facing each other across a table, with the wider aisle in the middle of the carriage. And of course, on the sea view side of the carriage. We were well looked after by the crew, although breakfast took longer to make it to us than it often does. We were almost at Berwick by the time we got to eat – the vegetarian option was a bubble and cheesy squeak – seen here with an unadvertised poached egg. Very nice! On the whole, it was a smooth, uneventful journey just as they should be.

The one thing of note to happen was a kerfuffle regarding a party of nearby passengers visiting from South America who had no tickets. All they had was a printed confirmation of their itinerary from their travel agent (which stated they should collect their tickets at the station), but they managed to bluff their way into staying in 1st without valid travel documentation. Quite probably a genuine mistake on their part, but I can’t imagine a situation in which I would blindly ignore a one page confirmation in favour of a travel agent’s say so…

Durham was looking rather splendid over the weekend, and we spent plenty of time wandering back and forth along the Wear and poking around the narrow streets. Here are a few photographic highlights.

We quickly realised we had made a mistake in booking our return tickets for such a late time on Sunday afternoon and set about attempting to rebook. Virgin has changed how this worked, as well as their online booking system, causing no end of issues. In the end I coughed up for new tickets on the service we wanted and will sort out the refund due on the old tickets later. Pleasingly, the cost of the new tickets was still very reasonable in 1st, and my favourite seats were available with just 24 hours’ notice.

Late on Sunday morning we checked out of our accommodation and headed back up the hill to Durham station, where there’s always plenty to see. Just a few minutes before our own train, there was an alternative service to Edinburgh on Cross Country. However, we hung on for the 12:20 which arrived on time. We had a very pleasant run up to Edinburgh, with the early-September light providing some nice photos. Service on board was the usual weekend fare, all provided by one crew member, but it was friendly enough.

I shot some video upon arrival into Newcastle – quite easily one of my favourite station approaches in the UK.

Never tire of arriving by rail in this city. #newcastle #trains #north

A post shared by Ian Giles (@scandinavianist) on

A footnote to our return journey. Frustratingly, our seats were occupied by someone else. I don’t like to cause a scene, so we duly shuffled off to sit somewhere else. As it happened, we ended up sat on top of the bogie at one end of the carriage – my first time in ages. I almost felt like I had whiplash by the end of the journey! What is the protocol in a sparsely populated carriage – is it okay to turf someone out of your (excellent) reserved seats?

Edinburgh to the East Neuk

2017-08-26 09.24.05

While my visit to Aberdeen had been in the pipeline for some time, a visit to the East Neuk of Fife for a couple of days came as a most unexpected surprise. Unsure of my own plans or energy levels after my trip to the north east, I had not made any arrangements but knew that I needed to join my companions – already insitu – during the course of a Saturday. This left me with the rare situation of deciding on the spur of the moment when to set off and how to travel. Sipping my cup of tea and checking train times, I noted that if I made it onto the 09:30 Scotrail service for Aberdeen, it would get me to Leuchars in a mere 53 minutes – 12 minutes quicker than most services. The time when I established this was 08:50. I decided to give it a go and threw the bits and pieces I needed into a bag while summoning a taxi using Gett(I may review Gett separately on a later occasion, but it’s a useful app in Edinburgh and London.) My car appeared within a few minutes and ferried me down to Waverley station quickly enough that I had time to buy my ticket and find a cup of coffee.

One of the more pleasant sides to spontaneous travel, especially a little closer to home, are the chance encounters. Looking for a good seat in the leading carriage, I ran into an old colleague which provided me with an hour of decent conversation and catching up en route to Fife. It was turning into a lovely looking morning, and the views from across the Forth Bridge, and along the south Fife coast were absolutely stunning. See below for a couple of examples.

Despite the train being stuffed with reservation labels, the passenger load was not all that bad. Presumably, a lot of people make reservations on their flexible tickets and then travel at other times. The reason for the speed of the Aberdeen services – and a plus for the eager traveller hoping to keep a table to themselves – is that upon departure from Haymarket the service runs non-stop to Leuchars. This meant that it didn’t feel like long at all until I was alighting round the corner from the old airbase and waving my train goodbye.

2017-08-26 10.27.43

I popped outside the station to catch the 99 to St Andrews, which was full but made a swift run, getting us to the bus station in around ten minutes. This is cash fare territory, and I was able to buy a through ticket to Crail and get change! The bus station was looking fresher than I remember it, but I suppose it merits investment as one of the smallest but busiest bus stations I’ve ever been to. When passing through last weekend, a real, playable piano had been provided for passengers’ entertainment. I didn’t have time to horrify passersby though, as my 95 – destined for Leven via the East Neuk – turned up shortly after I arrived. I hopped on and secured a good seat upstairs on the left hand side to ensure the best views.

The 95 is probably one of my favourite bus routes in Britain. The run from St Andrews as far as Anstruther is fantastically picturesque with some lovely rolling countryside and the blue ribbon of the North Sea always found on the left. The below is just one example of the view along the way, near to Kingsbarns. While it’s a good road to drive in any vehicle, doing it on the upper deck of a double decker gives you a far superior view – and I would recommend it to anyone on a fine day.

2017-08-26 11.18.54

About 25 minutes later I was in Crail, and two minutes’ stroll had me at my final destination. 2.5 hours door-to-door from suburban Edinburgh to the outer extremity of rural Fife using public transport is not bad at all, and the journey – segmented as it was – passed by very nicely. For what it’s worth, the area is well worth visiting too – the below photo is taken at the beach in Kingsbarns.

2017-08-27 12.08.40

To the Granite City

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.

2017-08-23 10.18.46

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.

2017-08-24 19.37.36

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.

Sleepless on the sleeper: Euston to Edinburgh

2017-08-04 22.07.22

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.