A train journey in need of air conditioning

Last month, I embarked on a day trip to Barmouth from where I went on an out and back hike that reacquainted me with sights along the Mawddach estuary. This summer, as I have remarked elsewhere, has been exceptional and you could say that 2018 only has had two seasons thus far: winter and summer. Spring scarcely came at all.

The day of my Welsh outing came warm so I was glad of any shade while out walking. Being inside of a train should have helped but for one or more class 158 units without functioning air conditioning. There are not enough windows to compensate for this as I also found on a Transpennine Express journey between Leeds and Manchester in the days before the current class 185 units.

There were other problems too and the arrival of a two carriage train in Wolverhampton was a foretaste of a less than full train schedule. Two additional carriages were added in Shrewsbury, resolving the previous crush. At Machnylleth, those extra carriages were taken off before the train continued to Aberystwyth with passengers for Barmouth and beyond needing to change to a train and there was a coach going directly to Barmouth too.

That onward connection was on a train without working air conditioning so it was just as well that I was not going all the way to Pwllheli on it. It may have been that this also was the train that took me all of the way from Barmouth to Shrewsbury. The two car unit was not augmented with an additional two carriages in Machynlleth because of a cancellation. That made for a very crowded journey in a hot train with less than happy folk on board.

Still, the situation got people talking and I was lucky enough to have a seat given that the single track railway made for delays when a passing train was running late. That happened on both legs of the journey but people were more bothered by the stop in a crowded warm train on the way to Shrewsbury where we transferred onto a better ventilated one. It was a trip to the seaside for many and some presence of mind may have made such an outing more pleasant for them.

Arriva is finished with its Welsh franchise in October so you have to wonder if the company is as focussed on the operation as it could be, especially when staff shortages cause train cancellations on a sunny Saturday when many are travelling. In contrast, the CrossCountry trains that I used between Macclesfield and Wolverhampton were kept cool with even messages celebrating England’s World Cup quarter final victory appearing on matrix displays in the evening. Virgin too were doing the same but any celebratory notions were tempered soon enough by subsequent semi-final and third place play-off defeats.

Returning to Welsh railway matters, Abellio takes over in the autumn and is promising a lot of much-needed investment after Arriva’s steady state franchise. After all, better trains are needed in many places and long distance journeys need longer trains too. There is much to improve so I hope that promises can be kept.

A troubled campaign?

Within the past week, Northern Rail has launched its Get a Ticket campaign to stop folk travelling without paying. However, it is at times like this that holes in the ticketing system not only emerge but are trotted out by passengers who do not take kindly to being suspected of criminality. Also, it is easy to roll out a campaign without considering what needs to be in place for such a thing to work.

In fact, it is pretty telling that Northern Rail are admitting that buying a ticket at a destination station has to be a fallback for passengers. It would be better for credibility that a few things had happened before the campaign begun. There also will be doubts in the minds of the travelling public as to how seriously to take these things, no matter how hard hitting a YouTube video campaign accompanied by a Twitter one can be.

The first is to install ticket machines at every station on their network, both staffed and unstaffed. If money is an issue, and it is bound to be one, then move machines from stations already staffed by other train operating companies such as Virgin to where they really are needed. Here’s an example: there is one Northern ticket machine in Stockport so that could be removed from there and installed in a place like Poynton where there are limited opportunities for buying tickets prior to travel.

Another development would have been to introduced ticketing via mobile phone apps. A recent update to Arriva’s bus ticketing app (they have made it very, very clunky and it sounds as if they are not keen to hear that either) shows that this needs careful execution if it is to work well. After all, if there is too little time for getting a ticket before boarding a train, that can be addressed while the train is moving because you should have time then to get things sorted.

Next up is ensuring that conductors do offer passengers opportunities to buy tickets from them and some can be lacklustre when it comes to this. On late night services, I have seen the conductor staying in his cab all the time and no one has the chance that they may need. This can cause cynicism with some thinking that a conductor is hiding away reading a newspaper instead of doing their job. The “hiding” word was mentioned in a tweet and Northern Rail didn’t take so kindly to its mention either. Nevertheless, when someone accused train staff of being lazy and used somewhat coarse language in so doing, they got asked to give an example. If I find one while out and about, I will be flagging this up to Northern. To be fair, there were opportunities to buy tickets on Northern services that I have used over the last two days (which is more than be said for an East Midlands one that I used between Stockport and Sheffield when no conductor was to be seen).

After motivating staff to do their job, there’s the matter of overcrowding and having too few folk to process ticket transactions on a busy train. The first one is the more difficult at the moment because that shortage of trains. Hopefully, electrification will allow the cascading of trains from the southeast to the north when new rolling stock down there replaces them. With Pacers (classes 142, 143 and 144) becoming obsolete from 2020, any extra trains really will be needed if a crunch is to be avoided. Getting in more staff to check tickets is another matter and those doing so at stations could be ideal for such a change in duties.

Senior management may think that there are plenty of ways of buying train tickets and there is a good list: via the web, at a train station and on a train. However, all of these can be improved by a mixture of mobile phone ticketing, greater availability of ticket machines, better motivated staff with more of them on busy trains and more train capacity. all of that takes investment so it is easy to see the attractions of an inexpensive online campaign over the web. What that does need though is credibility with a travelling perhaps weary from fare increases and there needs to be balance if there is not to be resentment at perceived heavyhandedness. Passenger patronage may be increasing now but that is never to say that things will stay that way indefinitely so goodwill always needs to be retained.

 

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.

An eventful evening

Snow arrived today as promised and travel disruption ensued. At the time of writing, Arriva Yorkshire and Nottingham City Transport are operating no bus services at all rail and disruption is hitting both the East Coast Mainline along with services around Bolton and Blackburn. More generally, bus services are experiencing difficulties across the north of England and into the English midlands so it’s best to check with your operator to make sure that your service is operating.

Twitter has been a good place to see what’s happening and those of us who are on there need to watch our daily limit of 1000 updates (20 per half hour, it seems) too. Even transport operators such as Virgin Trains and London Midland have been known to hit these limits on days like yesterday when severe disruption was caused by a derailment near Bletchley. For these eventualities, they have been known to open more accounts so you wonder what the limit achieves.

More roads than those used by buses get affected too and the A537 between Macclesfield and Buxton and the A54 between the latter and Buxton are closed tonight. It is an open question as to whether Bowers’ service 58 between Macclesfield and Buxton will operate tomorrow given that it was off the road last Saturday. Today, it kept going until at least 15:00 since I spotted one on the Cat and Fiddle Inn’s webcam.

Whatever you do tonight, I hope that you stay safe. Tomorrow could be interesting as well though we are promised milder weather as the new week wears on. It seems that Ireland has been unaffected by wintry weather apart from disruption to U.K. flights. That really drives home how regional how weather can be.

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.