A crowded railway on a crowded island

The prospect of a double bank holiday weekend was enough to set me thinking about going away somewhere. After pondering some options, I decided on a few days around Pitlochry. That meant that I enjoyed some dry and occasionally sunny weather why other parts of Britain and Ireland were getting a soaking.

The price of that enjoyment was getting there and away. Because Pitlochry is in the heart of Scotland, I settled on a return rail journey for the sum of £107.60. The journey time was set to be around seven hours but that wasn’t something that I minded and a journey that was quiet and relaxing would have suited me to the ground.

On the way there, travelling was more frenetic than might be desirable. The cause was a fatality on the West Coast Mainline near Leyland. If I had gone with my initial route that involved changes at Kidsgrove, Crewe and Edinburgh, I would have been stranded on a stationary train to the south of the incident and perhaps avoided a little of the saga that unfolded.

As it happened, I took a later train to Manchester (that was a busy CrossCountry service but everyone had their own seat) where I got on the heaving 09:16 Transpennine Express service to Glasgow. That got so uncomfortably busy that I alighted in Preston to catch another train. The train itself was formed of six carriages but there were for Glasgow and three were for Blackpool. It would have been better if all six were bound for Scotland and it highlights the foolishness of handing Manchester-Scotland services over to Transpennine Express in the first place. Electrification of the Manchester-Leyland line may gain us four carriage trains but that is insufficient on this route, at least at peak times like the one at which I was travelling.

If I could have remained on that train, it would have spared me any impact of the Leyland fatality on my journey. As things were, it was standing room only on that service and I had luggage with me. One good thing that came from my exit was it made it easier for a mother and child to get off at Preston.

Once at Preston, it became a waiting game and we all were ushered onto a Transpennine Express train to Lancaster. It became yet another overload three carriage diesel train and railway packed in as many as they could too. The advice was to catch a rail replacement coach from Lancaster though the reopening of the line at Leyland by then was the cause of some confusion.

Planned weekend rail engineering works fortuitously meant that there were hourly rail replacement coaches available since the train service was reduced between Lancaster and Carlisle from 11:00 on that Saturday as a result. There still were trains running, albeit at a reduced frequency.

With so many false dawns with trains that morning, I opted for the certainty of a coach ride instead of waiting for another train. At that stage, I didn’t know if I was going all the way to Carlisle on the coach or not but it was taking me north anyway and i only cared about that at the time. The National Rail Enquiries app on my phone seemed to be confirming the reality of trains running again so I left the coach at Oxenholme. It was the live departures and arrivals functionality that had its use here.

There indeed were trains running north from Oxenholme and two Glasgow-bound Virgin Pendolinos appeared before another destined for Edinburgh. That was the one that I wanted and it turned out to be blissfully quiet too after the frenetic journey that had been my lot until then. As long as it lasted, I savoured the experience.

After little while in Edinburgh, I boarded an East Coast HST to get to Pitlochry. Its final destination was Inverness and, though it was well used, the journey was another good one with sunshine appearing north of Edinburgh. While awaiting the service, the train guard seemed overly enthusiastic when it came to moving everyone down the platform, an annoying trait to have in someone else when you want to stay near the front so as to improve the chances of getting a good seat. That was easily forgettable once the train set off though, especially compared to the earlier part of my journey, the main cause of my arriving later at my destination than I had in mind.

The return journey went far smoother. A ScotRail train got me from Pitlochry to Edinburgh without too much sign of overcrowded. Everyone seemed to have a seat though it was a well patronised train. Transpennine Express came up trumps with a six carriage train from Edinburgh to Manchester and that was a peaceful journey too with my having gone to the front carriage for a seat. The only perturbation was a bridge being struck near Preston that caused the service to terminate in Manchester Piccadilly rather than Manchester Airport as scheduled. The last part of my journey to Macclesfield was uneventful if delayed. Getting home slightly later than planned was a minor thing compared to other experiences that I have had.

Whether it is due to my greater awareness of what is happening on the railways due to Twitter or not, there seem to be a lot disruption to trains caused by things external to the railways. Trespassing on the track is but one of these and an animal was struck near Macclesfield this morning, causing delays as you’d expect. When people are involved, it obviously is far more serious and you think of those who have been left after the deceased. Then, there are bridge strikes due to road traffic accidents and problems with level crossings. Cable theft is yet another behaviour that causes so much disruption. All of those should make it clear that lateness of trains is as much in the hands of those of us outside of the railway industry as it does of railway staff. After, you only have to tot up failures of signals, points and overhead electricity supplies to realise how frail our rail system can be. When you consider that, you may be amazed how well it works at all.

Deserted by rail?

There was a time when the Scottish Borders had railways running through the area but they now are no more though a restoration of the line between Edinburgh and Galashiels/Tweedbank is in the offing. That will be a partial help though it doesn’t really work for those coming up from the south like myself. It makes little sense to go north to come south again unless you have a reason to go north in the first place; basing yourself in Edinburgh and fanning out from there would be one.

What has brought this realisation my way was a trip to the area last weekend. Travel was by train as far as Carlisle followed by a lengthy ride on the X95 bus service from Carlisle to Edinburgh operated by First Scotland East. Those two hours did allow some gaping at the surrounding countryside, wonderment at the continued presence of single track bridges under permanent traffic light control on the A7 between Carlisle and Edinburgh along with looking out the windows at towns like Langholm, Hawick and Selkirk. Selkirk was where I stopped for a walk to Galashiels and Melrose via the Three Brethren and the South Upland Way but the return trip started from Galashiels after an overnight stay in Melrose and some exploration of the place.

Because of having different stopping and starting points at the Scottish ends of my cross border journeys, I went with two single journey tickets only to find that they were the same price of £6, not too bad considering the distance travelled. However, noticing that a return from Galashiels to Melrose was valid for a month, I’d be tempted to go with that the next time. Day tickets were not advertised on First buses so I stuck with paying single and return fares. Since returning home, I have done some investigation on their website and the cheapest one would have been £5 and it can go up to £9 depending on how many zones through which you need to pass. There’s the multi-operator One-Ticket too but that only makes sense if you are staying for a week or more. Maybe, playing safe like I did wasn’t so insensible and I didn’t imagine making as much use of buses as I did anyway.

All of the buses on which I travelled has Wright Solar style bodywork and felt fresh and reasonably well presented too. Apart from the X95, I also used services 9A (Melrose-Galashiels), 60 (Berwick-upon-Tweed to Galashiels) and 62 (Edinburgh-Melrose). Even the older buses that I saw working services or parking around Galashiels bus station didn’t look too shabby, whatever it is like to ride in them. It is all a far cry from the Alexander Y-Type bodied Leyland Tigers and such like with their high-floored bodies of which First had many in the late nineties or the Volvo Ailsa double-deckers that they started to phase out of operation around the same time.

In spite of any impression given so far, First isn’t the only operator with Munros of Jedburgh and Perryman’s Buses of Berwick-upon-Tweed running services too. The former fans out from its base in Jedburgh across the Borders, north to Edinburgh and south to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Once upon a time, I think that it ran the 67 between Berwick-upon-Tweed, Kelso and Galashiels but that is now in the hands of Perryman’s along with the 253 to Edinburgh whose route hugs the coastline.

The last time that I visited the area around Galashiels, I came over from the east on the 67 after staying a night in Berwick-upon-Tweed. As if to highlight the northeasterly tilt of the Scotland-England border, Berwick is nearly to the north of Galashiels or Gala as it is known to the locals. Now that I think of it, I am not sure why I went up the East Coast Mainline unless there were engineering works ongoing on its West Coast counterpart; not only did it add distance to my journey but it added to the cost of it too. It’s an approach that I wouldn’t take for a walking trip now though it does highlight another lost railway link that lives on in the form of First Scotland East bus service 60, the one that I took in order to ensure a return train trip. Again, there were two hour bus journeys involved so you have to see what this says about the size of the area governed by the Scottish Borders Council, not the most helpful of organisations when it comes to public transport information provision if my poking around its website is a fair reflection of their efforts. Learning from their counterpart in Dumfries and Galloway wouldn’t a bad start.

Given the area’s size and what it has to offer visitors from beyond its boundaries, it is pity that its railways were removed to make it so dependent on long distance bus services. If they still existed, getting a bike to the Scottish Borders for some cycling along its quiet roads and lanes would be so much easier. As things stand, it might be best to factor in a cycle from somewhere like Berwick-upon-Tweed where a more friendly road system and less taxing gradients are in its favour. Taking a folding bike would one workaround though they are not the cheapest of options and I have little experience of using them. Still, I am tempted by the idea and it would allow me to use a train/bus combination to get into an area that is both off the beaten track and worth exploring by bike. That’s not to stay that doing it on foot is a limitation but a little variety never hurt, did it?

A spot of bother with coupling

Yesterday saw me head out for a spot of walking in the countryside around Appleby, or Appleby-in-Westmorland. These days the place in the eastern end of Cumbria. My way there and away was by train, something that went off hunky dory apart from a spot of trouble on the Leeds-Appleby leg. There was nothing unusual in the coupling together of two twin carriage units and its something that happens routinely in several parts of the British railway network (the Cambrian and West Highland lines come to mind). However, as with anything, it can occasionally go awry and it just happened that this was one of them. There seemed to have been a problem with the coupling and it was slowing the train down, a major concern considering the heights it was to overcome on its passage over the Settle-Carlisle railway line. The slowdown was easily noticeable after Shipley. Decoupling and re-coupling at Bingley didn’t set things to rights so both sets were decoupled at Keighley and everyone put on the front train. It looked that it was going to be a two carriage unit for the rest of the way but the back set turned up in Skipton and coupled to the front of the one on which I was travelling. Apart from a certain reduction in the functionality of the lighting that had been the case since Leeds anyway, all went swimmingly from there north. A delay of more than thirty minutes might have been accumulated but I could cope with that and tailor my plans to fit the time that I had available. I am sure that what was encountered is rare but, as they say, stuff happens.

Buses can and do break down

Buses are like any machine: they can and do break down. It does need to be said that they are reliable for most of the time but, people being people, having a breakdown when you are in a hurry is the last thing that you need and some can vent their frustration at this too. Of course, the same comments equally apply to car ownership and usage.

If your journey is of the leisure variety, things aren’t so bad; you just alter your plans like I did when visiting the Lake District on Saturday. I was already running late thanks to thoughtless folk on the railway in Manchester and so was encouraged by the sight of the Stagecoach bus operating the 505 to Coniston. However, it had broken down so any thoughts of heading to the Coniston fells had to be placed on hold. I instead went on an out and back walk from Windermere train station itself and had an enjoyable day. Having had a number of ideas in mind meant that a broken down bus was never going to spoil a wonderful day.

I also use buses on the daily commute and the Arriva-operated 130 Macclesfield-Manchester service is the one that mainly serves my needs but it uses buses that are between 10 and 15 years old so the occasional missing bus can be attributed to a breakdown. I saw one broken down outside my house one evening and it did take some time for mechanics to appear and set it on its way again. Thankfully, new buses are coming to Manchester so we might be getting the ones that they are displacing and they would be newer than what is now plying the 130 route. I have never been on a 130 when it broke but the same could not be said of one occasion of using the 27 Knutsford-Macclesfield service when an Iveco minibus stopped up and we needed to wait for another to come and rescue us. Those buses are long gone and the 27 seems to be a paragon of reliability these days.

Having a mechanical failure in the right place helps if your journey is to continue without too much disruption. It’s not so good when it takes an hour or like the time when a bank holiday journey from Oban ended in the early hours of the next morning because of a missing Scottish Citylink coach from Fort William to Glasgow. Another Scottish Citylink case and a near miss was my witnessing the elements of gearbox trouble on an early morning 916 Glasgow-Fort William-Uig Scottish Citylink coach service; it didn’t inspire much confidence, especially given that this was on the edge of Rannoch Moor at the time. Switching the engine on and off was enough to restore progress though. That was unlike a rail-replacement coach service from Glasgow to Carlisle when gearbox failure stopped us in our tracks on the side of the M8; we were put on another vehicle very quickly if my memory serves me correctly. Quick rescue was also assured when a Dublin Bus vehicle operating the 67 between Celbridge and Dublin malfunctioned because we were on a busy thoroughfare. Quick rescue is one thing but it can fill up a following vehicle very quickly like when a Citylink coach on which I was travelling from Oban to Glasgow picked up West Coach Motors passengers from a failed 926 Campbeltown-Glasgow coach. Luckily, there was also a Citylink coach plying the same route and that took its share too.

I may have collected up a good number of incidents here but that is because I have been a heavy user of bus and coach services for over a decade. Bus mechanical failures remain rare and, with mobile telecommunications being so pervasive, help is always easy to contact even if it takes a little while to come. Allowing a bit of slack on the time front and possessing a modicum of patience can get us all through whatever gets thrown at us.