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.

A weekend in need of a bank holiday

The last weekend in May usually hosts what is known as the Spring Bank Holiday in the U.K. Due to the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, this didn’t happen this year and two days were added to the first weekend in June instead. My travel on the Jubilee weekend is another tale so I’ll relate experiences from the weekend before.

As it happened, we got scorching sunny weather at the end of May and it seemed to have tempted everyone out on the evidence of my travels to and from Northumberland on the Saturday of the weekend. York was hosting horse-racing too and that ensured that the Transpennine Express service on which I was travelling was crammed with folk.

That left me wondering if a bit of forward planning would have involved booking in longer trains for the extra traffic. However, when I asked them about this on Twitter, I got no answer. That was after my asking about having longer trains on the route for those races. That was answered by saying that they only have sixty trains and they all were in use. There are new trains coming with the planned electrification of the Manchester-Bolton-Preston and Manchester-Leeds-York routes. Let’s hope that they are longer and that the overall number operated by the franchise is enlarged at the same time.

The CrossCountry train that got me from York to Alnmouth too was well used though thankfully not as busy as the one taking me from Manchester to York. The Edinburgh Marathon was the cause this time and prospective runners were chatting to one another with even complete strangers conversing. Their having a common interest must have helped.

The return journey was less frenetic, especially between Alnmouth and York. Some late racegoers still were on the way home from York with some being “well oiled” by their constant refreshment throughout the day. The chatter emanating from some had me wishing that a portable music player was in my possession but it still wasn’t overly unpleasant.

The leg between Manchester and my home town of Macclesfield was the quietest of the lot though having two Northern Rail trains timed to leave at the same time from the same platform seemed a little incompetent. The Hadfield service went first and the Macclesfield train doors were locked until that departed. Though a little inconvenient, one only need imagine the mess caused by inebriated folk catching wrong trains to realise the sense in what was done. Around Congleton, someone was struck by a train earlier on the same evening so that may explain the sub-optimal platform arrangements.

Like many, I had been out and about when so many were doing the same. That so many were using public transport was encouraging and that was at the cost of a quiet getaway. Maybe a weekend first class upgrade should have been considered even with it adding to a fare that already was not inexpensive. Travelling a little earlier in the day might have been cheaper than any upgrade.

All it takes is a fatality

In February, I was travelling by train from Oxford to Macclesfield and got held up in Oxford for longer than was planned. The cause was a familiar one: someone was struck by a train and died of their injuries. In cases like these, investigations are needed and it takes an hour or more to complete those and reopen the line. My only complaint about that was that we weren’t told sooner what was going on. Of course, when there fatalities, you have to think about those who are left after the deceased. Compared to their lot, disruption to a journey seems trivial.

Tonight, something very similar has happened on the East Coast Mainline around Alexandra Palace in North London. There is no account as to whether the person struck by a train has died or not though it clearly is a concern. Having witnessed a suicide attempt in front a First Transpennine Express train at Oxenholme after a day spent walking in the Lake District, I do realise that these can be survived. That incident may have left me feeling shaken but the vigilance of railway staff meant that all was under control very quickly though that train from Scotland to Manchester Airport got cancelled if my memory serves me correctly. Police investigations always are needed when things like these happen.

Returning to the present, there is no doubt that this evening’s incident has been the cause of disruption for many commuters and other travellers who were headed north from London. In the middle of this, First Capital Connect made available useful maps showing alternative routes for those caught up in the disruption. Hopefully, that information got put into the hands of those who need it because this precisely is what’s needed for onward travel when railway lines are closed like this. Compounding that, a train broke down around Shepreth too so passenger travelling between Hitchin and Cambridge were inconvenienced too though the reason is a less worrying one.

Near the end of September, I too walked into similar disruption at King’s Cross Station while bound for Hatfield. Then, that kind of information was scarce and there was an hour’s wait before I got to know that travelling to St. Albans and taking a bus from there would get me where I wanted to go that night. The cause then was less tragic: rats had eaten cable near Finsbury Park and caused a signal failure that made journeys for everyone so rough that it got into BBC London news bulletins.

For me, it came at the end of a month spent commuting from home to work on site at a client and it brought me face to face with other delays too. Even without fatalities, Virgin Trains were struggling to keep trains running to schedule. A signalling mistake was all it took to delay me between Macclesfield and London one evening, the very same one that I have described above as it happens. Friday night departures from Euston hardly ran on time for me though I have done better with earlier Wednesday and Thursday evening ones since then. Signalling problems around Wembley were to blame one evening so it does look as if railways in the north of London are a little on the fragile and criminality in the form of cable theft does not help either.

While my thoughts starting with persons being struck by trains on Britain’s railway, they seem to have meandering to other causes of railway disruption. Nevertheless, fatalities are the most tragic of all these and thoughts to be with those left behind by such incidents regardless of the amount of disruption that is caused.

Update 2011-12-13: There seem to be two such casualties tonight, one around East Croydon and another near Brighton. Of course, disruption ensues but it’s the families of those struck by trains who should be uppermost in anyone’s mind. Hopefully, everyone gets home O.K.

Disruption in Scotland

Scotland still is catching the brunt of storm force winds and heavy rain as I write this. Bridges are shut (Tay, Erskine and Forth) and public transport services heavily affected. West Coast Motors are not running buses in Oban and Bute; the latter being due to a power failure. Sticking with the west of Scotland, the last Scottish Citylink departure for Fort William has been cancelled and that tells its own story. Glasgow and Edinburgh too have seen service changes as operators struggle with the weather. Even with that, most services seem to be running and keeping an eye on announcements from the likes of First Glasgow or Lothian Buses would be no bad idea.

Trains do not seem to have got too badly though there were some line closures around Glasgow earlier. Nevertheless, tomorrow will see the aftermath of what is battering Scotland so things may not be operating as smoothly as usually is the case. After all, there has been some structural damage done to buildings and infrastructure with a wall falling on a car in Aberdeen. At times like these, the only hope that can be expressed is that everyone is safe.

Update: National Rail Enquiries have on their website a page describing train running in the current adverse weather conditions. It looks as if there is more disruption than what I suggested above, such as between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. There’s quite a list of cancellations there with services such as the Caledonian Sleeper from Fort William and local ones around Glasgow being examples.

Update 2012-01-03: Yet another storm has hit Scotland again and with much the same effects too.

Not so bad around here

With all the noise that there is about the closures of Heathrow and Gatwick due to the heavy snow that hit the south over the weekend, it is worth remembering that other parts are affected as well and that more snow hit the southwest and Wales today. For instance, Wales seems to be seeing disruption to its train services and MerseyRail is running a Sunday service tomorrow to ensure resilience (how’s that going to work with folk going to work and about their business?).

There may have been snow in the Manchester, Stockport and Macclesfield areas on Friday night but local buses and trains seem to be running well. The way in which we have been feeling the effects of what happened on Saturday are in the form of train cancellations and delays with Virgin faring worse than CrossCountry from what I could see. Macclesfield town bus services are being operated as are those to Crewe and Manchester. We may have to take care where we walk but that’s the extent of what the cold weather has done to us in the town.

A recent trip to Glossop confirms the same sort of conditions. Most buses seem to be running there too and trains seem not to be missing a beat. Good accumulations are there to be seen in the surrounding hills but any roads that I saw were clearer than the pavements by their side. Apart from greasy soft snow, the only real ice was to be found on a bridleway and that needed footwear with spikes for it to be crossed. Otherwise, busier routes could be negotiated though some needed care in order to do so.

Ireland hasn’t escaped the snow either with a heavy fall this evening having closed Dublin Airport to arrivals and departures until at least 23:00.The general Dublin area seems to have had quite a dump of the white stuff too, much as the southwest of the country did over the weekend. That has made road conditions tricky in usually mild parts such as the county of Limerick; the town of Newcastlewest is badly affected by ice due to the very low temperatures.

All in all, I could see folk in Britain and Ireland welcoming a wet Christmas if it took away the snow and ice that we currently have. With all the excitement of white Christmases in previous years, who’d have seen that coming about? After all, I suppose that it’s harder to enjoy a visual feast if you feel that your normal way of life is disrupted.