A mid morning gap in Argyll

Last weekend saw me stretch it to head up to Oban. It was August 2008 when I last went there so it was high time for a return to the place. Walks took me along the shore of Loch Etive and along the eastern coastline of Mull so I did spread out from my base and the weather was more obliging than weather forecasts were leading me to believe.

Because it is a long way from Macclesfield, going by train probably is best though an off-peak return is costly at £115.30. The way up saw changes in Manchester, Preston and Glasgow instead of suggested route options that oddly took in Stafford and Crewe. Though railway engineering was ongoing between Bolton and Preston, Transpennine Express continued to operate trains between Manchester Airport, Preston and the likes of Blackpool with a diversion via Wigan which involved tantalisingly slow movement through Wigan North Western station. That train was both busy and late so I was lucky to get any sort of seat on the thing with many standing. Apart from that, the other sections of the journey were fairly pleasant so I cannot issue too many complaints. The return journey involved the same changing points and was a little more enjoyable.

The changeover from Glasgow Central to Glasgow Queen Street is made to loom large on railway journey planners but in reality is something like a fifteen minute walk that I once did in around ten minutes. Doing the same between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria takes around twenty minutes so Glasgow’s main train stations are closer together and Buchanan Bus Station is of the same duration from the principal train stations so walking is viable there too.

Getting to and from Oban has improved from the three or four return journeys that I would have expected and I counted something like eight on summer weekdays. Many of these would involve piggybacking off the train to Mallaig and Fort William with train division at Crianlarich and there also are trains travelling solo to Oban and the 16:37 departure that took me there was one of those and that train left at 20:36 to return to Glasgow offering anyone living in Scotland’s Central Belt the chance of a longer day trip to the Isle of Mull while later ferries are running.

Speaking of ferries, it can feel as if Oban is better connected to nearby islands than other parts of the mainland. For instance, the ferry to Mull travels at a decent pace and offers up to seven each way sailings a day while Kerrera enjoys a very frequent largely passenger service only a mile or two down the road from Oban. Other islands like Lismore, Coll, Tiree, Barra, South Uist and Colonsay also see sailings from Oban.

Maybe it is a reality of the mountainous hinterland of Oban as much as the outcome of the Clearances but it can feel as if frequent bus services stick to the coastline. The 405 and 005 serve Connel and Benderloch from Monday to Saturday and there is the 410 on Sundays. All of these have an hourly frequency with extra schoolday journeys extending as far as Appin though the Monday to Saturday service 918 to Fort William could be a better bet for those parts so long as the timings of the three return journeys suit what you want to do. There also is an interesting if less frequent service 408 that goes all the way to Bonawe on the shore of Loch Etive and service 418 to Easdale and North Cuan with latter offering a ferry crossing to Luing.

Aside from the foregoing, Oban gets a smattering of Monday to Saturday town services going to the town’s more outlying fringes like Soroba, Ganavan and Gallanchmore but what hits me is how limit local bus connections to the likes of Dalavich, Taynuilt and Dalmally. If it were not for train and long distance coach services, the latter pair would be stranded altogether and that brings me to the title of this piece. To get to either of those places for commencing a walk, you either need to start from Oban around 08:00 or 09:00 or wait until just after 12:00. Whatever express service used to run around 11:00 is no more and I find myself challenging the idea of the 976 timetable (Oban to Glasgow) shadowing that of the trains, albeit with only three return journeys a day too. Even the summertime Citylink Oban to Dundee service only offers one journey each way when there once was two and that offered a gap filler. To be fair, Citylink did try to offer more connections in 2008 when it was embroiled in a bus war with West Coast Motors. Whatever innovation was shown at the time appears to have been lost since then and both parties did have the good sense to patch up their differences.

As it happened, the 12:11 from Oban to Glasgow was mobbed on the Saturday of my weekend away. It was if everyone was leaving at the end of the high season when Sunday’s weather showed what they were leaving after them if only they could see past the rain on the day of their departure. the inadequacy of the two carriage train was emphasised by Scotrail’s hiring of a coach to assist them in moving folk about. There also was a bother with luggage being in a wheelchair space and I could have done without one gentleman talking about the effects that lifting heavy luggage on him after a relatively recent operation. While sparing you all the details, I was glad to have a seat and to leave them on their way at Taynuilt. On this basis, having a train departure at around 10:30 would have seemed sensible and would have got me an earlier start to my walk too. However, the same train departure on Monday was much quieter and all the more enjoyable apart maybe from moments when someone started to watch something on his phone without headphones but that irritation has faded now. the weekend had been good to me anyway and I quite fancy a return sometime soon so that’s a good thing to be able to say after any trip away.

Additional Services for the Summer in Scotland

During the Jubilee bank holiday weekend, I popped up to Scotland for a few days and, in so doing, learned more about some extra train and coach services that are laid on for the summer up there. Of course, that wasn’t my real reason for going. The chance of getting some dry weather while sampling more of the country’s scenery was the actual motivation.

A copy of ScotRail‘s Insight on-train magazine alerted me to the return of a direct Sunday return train service between Edinburgh and Oban. It leaves the former at 08:10 and arrives at 12:06 having called at Haymarket, Linlithgow, Polmont and Falkirk along the way. It then leaves Oban at 17:11 and arrives back in Edinburgh at 21:09. It hasn’t started yet though and you’ll need to wait until the 24th of this month for the first running. It then continues until August 26th and the return fare is a not that unreasonable £36.

Scottish Citylink offer extra services for the summer season and, unlike ScotRail’s Edinburgh-Oban service, most of these are available now. Ones that stand out for me are service 913 from Edinburgh to Fort William, service 978 from Edinburgh to Oban and service 973 from Dundee to Oban. The 913 and 973 add useful travel connections around Loch Tay as well as adding to the service level west of Crianlarich.

While on the subject of Scottish Citylink, year round services also see their service level increased. For instance, there is a 978 service via Tyndrum between Glasgow and Oban and a 975 shuttle between the latter and Tyndrum where coaches between Glasgow and Fort William are met. Speaking of the the latter, they are expanded for the summer too as are their continuations to the Isle of Skye. While speaking about West Highland coach services, it is worth mentioning that the Glasgow-Campbeltown 926 service is operating as five services each way daily; three was all we got not so long ago.

Though these are the summertime service increases that stand out for me. For instance, there are extra ones running between the Scotland’s Central Belt and Inverness as I discovered on Monday morning. Also, Edinburgh’s festival season in August sees extra late night services between Glasgow and Edinburgh and there are events like T in the Park too. Well, it’s worth spending some time on Citylink’s website to see what’s available because I only may be scratching the surface here.

Apart from the above, there may be other summer only services on offer of which I have no knowledge and Caber Coaches’ service 93 around Loch Tay on Saturdays is one such find. If any come my way, I’ll get them noted because summer passes so quickly. With some of the ones that we have seen, there are those who may see that as a good thing but I’ll reserve my judgement.

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.

Just don’t forget your earplugs

Last weekend saw me take the Caledonian Sleeper from Crewe to Fort William. After a none too restful return from Aviemore in August, I booked a berth to make sure of a better night’s rest (being able to turn off the lights helps). It wasn’t the first time that I travelled by Sleeper to Fort William and a January 2006 escapade saw me arriving in Fort William feeling reasonably refreshed so I knew that my plans had some form, to use an expression from horse racing. Since that 2006 journey, memories have faded a little and I had forgotten how little floor space there is to be found even in a first class berth and the corridor wasn’t very wide either. Yes, I did travel first class on both occasions with the second outing costing less than the first with my getting an advance purchase fare the second time around. That’s never to say that it was cheap at £136 so it has to be a once in while extravagance and the standard single ticket is around £184, which is even more forestalling. Even the standard class fare isn’t cheap either and having two in a berth sounds restrictive.

The reason for the title of this piece is that there was more audible noise than I’d expected though it was nothing like the brake roar of a Mark II carriage like the one(s) on which I was travelling when going to and from Aviemore. The carriage in which I was travelling was immediately behind the locomotive on the way to Edinburgh so that may have been part of the reason for this along with the general turning of wheels that is unavoidable. Even so, I did manage to drop off to sleep even if it was to be interrupted from time to time. In keeping with the general lack of space, the bed wasn’t the widest but I discovered a duvet that either remained unfound or was absent on my 2006 trip. That was a bonus on the cold night and put a stop to any recourse to coverage with an outer jacket.

It was beyond Bridge of Orchy that I arose and opened the window blind to be greeted by the sight of snow-topped summits with the sun struggling from its slumber. That awakening was later than in 2006 when I looked out at Tyndrum Upper station and the tops were devoid of the white stuff too so that was one previsualisation put out of its misery. Breakfast duly arrived within a few minutes of the agreed time (included in the fare for first class and costing extra for standard class), the pull down tray shelf allowed me to down the alloted portions while gawping at what lay outside my window. In fact, I was left wondering when the glorious sights were to ease off to allow for ablutions (you get a covered sink in the berth) and collection of belongings but there was to be time for those necessities too.

All in all, it was a good journey and I went out into the frosty Fort William air not feeling the worst for wear after the night’s travelling. If I ever get to doing it again, I’d bring earplugs to make getting to sleep easier but you cannot do anything about awakenings caused by jolts as the train changes tracks at a junction. Even so, you do arrive feeling far better than you would after travelling overnight on a coach. On the surface, there are issues with value for money but a look at daytime fares helps to put that in perspective. Travelling mid-week helps too and there are bargain berths if you book ahead, especially if you are starting from London. Even with the cost issue and the fact that there are no Saturday night services, it probably is the best way to travel overnight to Scotland. While you could always fly and avoid overnight travel altogether, you’d miss out on those early sights of the hills and lochs and that has to be better than worrying about environmental consequences and luggage considerations. That the airborne option is not always cheaper either makes it less sensible to miss out on those visual delights.

Bikes on buses

I remember making a return journey between Charleville and Cork in Ireland when a passenger just popped a bicycle into one of the coach’s side lockers and it was carried without further ado. When I had the idea of doing the same on an outing from Edinburgh to Fort William, I was thwarted because carriage of bicycles on buses and coaches is not the norm. The phrase that lingers in my memory, regardless of whether it actually was said that way or not was “This is not a train”. Undeterred, I secured my bicycle and left it after me to enjoy a wonderful day out. The change of plan was no spoiler though the it did alter how I spent the day.

There are some who might say that the above contrast between Irish easygoing helpfulness, the same type that allows the carriage of forgotten luggage on a service coach from Galway to Dublin without charge or facilitating the retrieval of a case left on Dublin’s LUAS tram system by myself and I half-asleep after an early morning flight from Manchester, and British adherence to process and procedure. While I cannot doubt Irish helpfulness, I am more inclined to attribute the differences in outcome to differences in legal systems.

Whatever the cause, non-carriage of bikes by buses and the paucity of accommodation for them on trains (a story for another time) has fostered the growth of my interest in hillwalking at the expense of cycling. Ironically, it is in the types of places where I go walking that there have been innovations when it comes to carriage of bicycles by buses. In the Yorkshire Dales, trailers have been attached to Dennis Darts for the purpose. In other places, you see the use of racks mounted on the back for the same purpose and the X94 that goes between Chester/Wrexham and Barmouth comes to mind but there are others. Having bicycle pens within the buses themselves is another way of achieving the same and I have vague recollections of this being done in Snowdonia and the northwest of Scotland. On the subject of vague recollections, I have another one of seeing a photo in Buses magazine where seats have been replaced by a place to put bikes on what appeared to be a double-decker.

Though none of those ways to carry bikes on buses are widely available, there is an argument in favour of making that happen. After all, having a bicycle in a wheelchair or buggy space on a low floor bus is likely to cause a nuisance and you couldn’t even get one on the older step entrance vehicles. Then, there’s the prospect of breaking up a bike to carry it on a National Express coach service and that sounds like something that you would do if you were carrying one on an airplane. Of course, there are those folding bikes that people sneak onto commuter trains at peak times as luggage but is that really ideal for that day out in the countryside exploring its quieter roads? All in all, it’s a state of affairs that encourages car use but remains a tough nut to crack whichever way you go about it.