Thursday 2nd January 2020
I looked enviously at Paddington’s departure board this morning seeing the 09:15 departure to Bristol Temple Meads, with its attractive non-stop 68 minute run to Bristol Parkway, ‘boarding’ yet still eluding me.
Today was the first opportunity to have another try of enjoying the ‘non-stop’ experience after its hit and miss first week following GWR’s new speeded up timetable introduced on 15th December (dodgy track at Slough on Monday; signal fault near Slough on Wednesday; floods closing Brighton Main Line on Friday; GWR staff shortage cancellations on the following Monday; Paddington shut down from Tuesday (Christmas Eve); Saturday timetable each day after the shut down….) except I’d decided to try another adventure today having pre-booked a ticket to Cardiff to try out an electric train on the speeded up timetable all the way under the wires. They’d been energised beyond Newport all the way to Cardiff as a timely Christmas present.
It turned out I was lucky. Much more so than the poor person who tragically ended their life by jumping in front of a train near Swindon at about 08:30 this morning. Condolences and sympathy to all those involved – family, friends and train staff and the emergency services.
Despite all lines blocked, my train, the 09:48 to Swansea, left Paddington on time and arrived in Swindon just after the line reopened. Whereas that elusive 09:15 non-stopper got severely delayed as did the 08:48 to Swansea which we caught up, while the 09:18 to Cardiff had sensibly been cancelled. Other Bristol bound services were diverted via the Newbury line.
I had planned to report here how we performed with the new speeded up 1 hour 51 minute journey time to Cardiff compared to the pre 15th December two-hour timing (a 7.5% saving) but inevitably once we caught up the train ahead of us congestion caused delays and it wouldn’t be a fair observation or report on such a sombre travel morning.
I’m not an expert on train motive power but I’m convinced we changed to diesel mode as we neared Newport leaving me to wonder whether despite energised wires, electric running had commenced.
As it was I ended up with a very tight connection for a transfer from Cardiff Central round to Queen Street to be at the designated stop for my return trip to London with Snap – the online booking coach company.
My first travel experience to Bristol with Snap back in October 2018 didn’t get off to a good start with traffic delaying the coach’s arrival at the St Pancras station pick up point but I’d accepted that experience as a one off and the lasting memory was of a high quality luxury coach more than making up for any delay so I was excited to be giving Snap another try.
Snap ‘paused’ its service portfolio between London and Nottingham, Bristol and Cardiff (and links to Oxford’s X90 London route) for a few months last summer so that more funding could be raised.
Email newsletters reassured everyone it was all positive and by the autumn, although neither Peter Jones nor Deborah Meadon had become investors, news came of some well known industry names who had, surprisingly, even with details of how much they’d invested during the ‘pause’, demonstrating continued confidence in Snap’s business model.
One update explained £1 million had been raised surpassing targets and expectations, so when a further email arrived in my inbox on Boxing Day offering a £10 voucher to be used anytime until the end of January I couldn’t resist making an immediate booking for the New Year.
I decided to give the more recent service introduction between Cardiff and London a try as both Snap and the operator N.A.T. (Comfort DelGro owned New Adventure Travel) had been publicly praising its credentials.
It’s easy enough to book a journey on Snap’s website (there’s no app) but it helps to know that they do operate to Cardiff. Put any destinations (including postcodes) into the ‘From’ and ‘To’ boxes on the home screen as you’re invited to do, and it could take some time to find a coach going your way without knowing where Snap actually goes but I’m sure an algorithm captures all such data entries to assess future journey potential (memo to Snap … might be worth checking the authenticity of the high number of tries for a Brighton to London journey from the same IP address!).
I opted for a journey from Cardiff to London at 11:35 on 2nd January but found from the next screen this was in fact a pick up at 12:16 on a journey which begins at Treforest at 11:35 and takes you to Hammersmith arriving at 15:17.
It was just as well I made a note of the arrival time as that doesn’t appear on the confirmation email or text you immediately receive once the booking is made.
The very reasonable fare was just £5 which with my Boxing Day £10 voucher meant not only did I have a free ride but money left over for another trip. My thanks to those industry colleague investors for their generosity.
Snap are very good at sending reassuring texts as the departure time for the journey approaches.
I’m reminded of the pick up point – just a short walk from Queen Street station.
Then I’m given the driver’s name and a link so I can track the coach heading towards me from Treforest and Pontypridd.
There are two other passengers already waiting at the pick up point when I arrive exactly within the recommended ten minutes ahead of schedule time at 12:06.
I notice the young lady, like me, is looking puzzled at her phone and we both establish neither of us can make the tracking link work. She’s used Snap before and was disappointed when the service ‘paused’; this is her first time since it returned – noting that Hammersmith is now the terminus rather than the previous terminus at Baker Street.
She was obviously a Snap fan and remarked what a great idea it is to utilise coaches that would otherwise be travelling empty between cities – interesting how that perception has prevailed.
At 12:21 an impressive maroon coloured Volvo B11R Plaxton Elite interdeck coach arrived. It wasn’t sporting any Snap logos but a London display in the destination box and a quick check the registration plate matched the text info received were all we needed to climb aboard and show our mobiles with text confirmations to the driver who turned out to be Gareth rather than Damian.
A bit later a further text came through apologising for the tracking not working – maybe Damian was back at base fixing it.
Eight passengers were already on board as the three of us boarded and at 12:23 we headed off via Roath and the A48/M4 to Newport.
Even though Newport town centre is close to the M4 it still cost us a fifteen minute time penalty which turned out to be for no passengers. I assume someone had booked and it was a no show otherwise they’d have been no point calling there – I guess no shows are the downside of free rides or ultra cheap fares.
Incidentally I checked out the yield management pricing for the journey I made both last night, when it had increased to £8.10 …
… and this morning, when it was £9.30.
Both prices still very reasonable.
The coach wasn’t what I’d call ‘luxury’ standard I’d enjoyed on my Bristol trip. Leg room was adequate, seat comfort good – better than the GWR IET Class 800 – but disappointing no usb sockets, seat back trays or Wi-fi. I’m thinking this should be standard if Snap want product consistency.
There was a toilet onboard for those dexterous enough to manoeuvre themselves into it. Two did.
The journey along the M4 was smooth and uneventful; just very minor congestion between the M5 and M32 junctions with the long 50mph smart motorway upgrade section from Reading eastwards thankfully free flowing.
We arrived in Hammersmith at 15:22 almost exactly three hours after leaving Cardiff. That’s just over an hour longer than the 1 hour 51 minute train ride to Paddington but at £5, or even completely free as my journey was, I have no complaints.
Snap is worth watching. It’s got a formidable task expanding into a well served express coach market dominated by National Express and Stagecoach’s Megabus but it has an energetic and enthusiastic team … and that £1 million to spend.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.