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.

Not taking no for an answer

With a fine weekend in prospect, the mind turns to getting out and enjoying what’s on offer. In that vein, I tried looking up train times for a return journey between Macclesfield and Harlech, all on the same day with one change in Wolverhampton and maybe another in Machynlleth, only for the National Rail Enquiries website to tell me that it was impossible. The workaround was to look for a single outbound journey and a single return journey, not ideal but I got the information that I needed. While this was a case of curiosity more than anything else, I might be nonplussed if I was after a bargain fare in preference to the standard Off-Peak Return; knowing that such a search would prove fruitless anyway would have meant sticking with a walk on fare so I wasn’t bothered.

While it has come a way since its original incarnation, the episode illustrates that creases still need to be knocked of the National Rail Enquiries journey planning algorithm. When the website first came on the scene, I was left wondering why they couldn’t have used the excellent engine that Network Rail had inherited from Railtrack; it was one of the few things that they got right. It was all the more puzzling when the new planning engine was nowhere near as good as its predecessor. Glitches like not being told about journey options via Wilmslow when engineering work disrupted the normal Sunday services between Macclesfield and Manchester was but one of the inconsistencies.

Of course, any system is only ever as good as the data supplied to it. A striking example of that was the carrot of having an early Sunday morning rail replacement coach to Wilmslow for a day out in Wales. The advised coach service turned out to be a work of fiction so my travel arrangements had to change as did any plans that I had. A good day was enjoyed but not in the way in which I had envisaged it. The same sort of thing may explain the lack of available fares sometimes when there is engineering work ongoing and that between Lockerbie and Edinburgh earlier this year comes to mind.

While I can deal with this and find my way around the rail network anyway or even turn to other journey planning services, what must it all seem to someone who isn’t so savvy? I can see it looking very offputting and that’s a pity because public transport needs all the support that it can get in these leaner times. Taking this further, public transport needs to sell itself better and easier journey planning is part of this. Websites that don’t deliver may not cause someone to pick up a phone or visit their nearest staffed train station but set them to choose to drive or even fly instead, hardly the type of thing that should be happening. The National Rail Enquiries website may have won awards and offer the option to sort out accommodation along with your train ticket but what use is all of this if the journey finding algorithm or the information supplied to it aren’t up to scratch? After all, that’s why people go to the website so both of those need to take precedence over any other fancy features that some might care to add.

A ride on an HST

On Saturday, I embarked on a journey that had me travelling on an NXEC HST without going anywhere next to near the stomping ground of the beleaguered NXEC. The train itself was bound from Manchester to Newquay and had been hired by CrossCountry in anticipation of the summer holidaying hoards, not that it was very full when I was on it. Admittedly, it was early in the morning when I set off from Macclesfield to Wolverhampton en route to Machynlleth in Wales.

HST’s are many people’s idea of a perfect but my mind started to compare it with newer trains. For one thing, the delay in setting off from any station was more than a little noticeable. Having to slam all of the doors shut will have a bearing on this but I am wondering if other things are in play. So many of our trains have underfloor engines that it is a little eerie sitting in an unpowered trailer carriage awaiting the off. Many prize the quietness and smoothness but those engines do seem to add a certain extra immediacy that allays any impatience. Another thing is that there needs to be an added heave to get things moving, even if there is a power car at either end. So, does distributing the power to each train carriage make it easier to set off? Virgin were in the habit that it does and I can see what they mean.

One other though bubbled up as I disembarked at Wolverhampton: operating the doors. More specifically, I wonder how many people get confounded by the need to push down the window and reach out to use the handle to open the door when push button operation is so commonplace. What places this into sharp relief is the surprise expressed by a Swedish acquaintance upon travelling on an old West Coast Mk III set; it seems that the outside door handle approach with which so many have been familiar in former times are foreign to residents in other countries, Sweden for example. It might be the same with many British train travellers too. Recalling the fumbling that passengers did when Voyagers and Pendolinos were introduced, I do ask myself if the same foolish operates in the reverse direction.

While I am sure that some HST’s will make it into preservation, the onset of the Super Express more than likely will end their reign on the British railways. After all, they were only ever intended as a stopgap measure, albeit one that has lasted into its fourth decade so far. So, if you are into your railway experiences, it might be worth catching a HST while you can. Along with NXEC, CrossCountry, East Midlands and First Great Western all have their own. Saying that, with the financial constraints facing us, I wouldn’t bet against them continuing in regular service into their fifth decade. Well, they must have lasted this long for a reason…