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.

Mayday Bank Holiday Bus Services for 2014

Not long after Easter, we find ourselves enjoying another bank holiday weekend so bus services are set to deviate from their normal Monday timetables and I have collected what I can find out about what is to be offered on here. In essence, it is a case of mainly observing Sunday timetables though there are exceptions that may be pleasant surprises for you.

Service Changes

Here’s a short list of areas or companies and the sort of service levels that they plan to offer on the Mayday Bank Holiday for 2014:

Bus Éireann

Mainly a Sunday service with some additional alterations.

Cardiff Bus

Sunday service

Cheshire East

Mainly a Sunday service

Coach Services (Thetford)

Sunday service: only routes 80, 82, 83, 85 & 86 will be served.

Dorset

Mainly a Sunday service level and they have a bus timetables collection too if you need to check further.

First Essex

Sunday service

Lothian Buses

Saturday service

Merseyside

Essentially a Sunday service and they have more information for anyone who needs it.

Oxford Bus Company

These have their own special timetable for the Easter and Mayday bank holidays. Some services operate to Sunday timetable, others as if it was a normal Monday and some not at all.

Pennine Motors

Saturday service

Preston Bus

Sunday service

Ridgways of Glamorgan

No service

South Yorkshire

Mainly a Sunday service

Stagecoach Manchester & Wigan

Sunday service

Strathclyde

Essentially, this centres on Glasgow but should apply to anywhere in Scotland’s western central belt. Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) has a summary of services for the Mayday Bank Holiday on their website.

Trent Barton

Sunday service

Vale of Glamorgan

Mainly a Sunday service with the only exceptions being Cardiff Airport services 905 and T9. They are running to a normal weekday timetable.

West Midlands

Sunday service. Network West Midlands have more information if you need it.

West Yorkshire

Metro have a leaflet containing the details you would need.

Yellow Buses (Bournemouth)

Sunday services with routes 1A, 1B, 1C, 2, 2B, 3, 4A, 4B, 5A, 5B, 6, 24 and A1 operating.

Nothing for you above?

If none of the above cover your area, Traveline always remains a useful port of call and their national or regional websites are listed below:

Scotland

Wales

Cumbria & Northeast England

Yorkshire

Northwest England

East Midlands, England

West Midlands, England

East Anglia

Southeast England

Southwest England

Hope you have a good one, whatever you do.

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 bottleneck awaiting removal

A Saturday outing to the western end of the Yorkshire Dales had me travelling around by Lancaster and that meant my train journey was set to take in the striking bottleneck that is the Manchester Piccadilly-Oxford Road-Deansgate-Salford line. While I had admit that it may be a difficult and expensive thing to do but the restrictive approach to Manchester Piccadilly always amazes me. It is, I think, a consequence of history in that it is a hangover from a time when Manchester had more termini than it does now. For instance, what is now the Museum of Science and Technology was once the terminus for the Manchester and Liverpool railway right back at the start of the railway revolution. Then, there was Manchester Central and that train shed has become G-Mex. Manchester Victoria was the terminus of choice of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway company, a map of whose network still adorns its walls. These days it seems underused with its better western connections but it is a mile away from Piccadilly so I suppose that makes it less convenient for some though its situation next to the Arndale Centre is more central than that of Piccadilly.

What reminded me of all of this was a 20-30 minute delay that afflicted the 07:54 Northern stopping service to Preston. My plan was to use the 08:15 Transpennine Express departure that was to follow it but I tend to use what is at hand rather than sticking rigidly to plans; in fact, my train was retarded so as not to delay the progress of that 08:15. The cause of the disruption was a fright train in difficulty, not a good thing to have on the line between Piccadilly and Oxford Road. Though it may prove expensive and disruptive, I would like to see quadrification of the through line from Piccadilly. In reality, we are probably more likely to get an HS2 rather than this kind of meaningful advance. Small changes that don’t arouse much in the way of excitement are less likely when there is cash about than the shiny one.

Saving precious pennies

I an mulling over a Christmas shopping trip to Edinburgh over the coming weekend (yes, I know that we are just after one) and decided to see if I could save on the £64 off-peak return fare by having a poke around the National Rail Enquiries website. It turns out that there is a way to manage the feat and a saving of around a third of the price is possible too without needing advance purchase tickets with their lock-in to specific train times. In fact, all that’s needed is a practice called rebooking where you get more than a single set of tickets for your journey and it’s valid so long as the train on which you are travelling actually stops at a station that is a destination for one set and a starting point for another. I have found that a set from my home station to Preston and from there to Edinburgh does the deed. The very nice part of all of this is that it can be done with off-peak return ticketing (the current incarnation of the old saver return), all walk on fares in other words. And there’s no need to resort to thetrainline.com with all their smugness and hubris either; well, I find their latest billboard campaign to be on the wrong side of insulting…