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Rail Rover reflections

Saturday 3rd July 2021

My latest 7-day All Line Rover came to an end yesterday (the first I’ve taken for a couple of years due to the pandemic) so here are a few reflections on the week’s travels in these continuing Covid aware times.

Normally I’d ensure I got my Rover money’s worth by making many train journeys across the entire network, particularly long distance journeys. This time I had a number of projects and initiatives I wanted to experience – the Gerald train, open top buses in various places and the Snake X57 bus – that it made sense to include them all in a week’s coordinated itinerary and use the flexibility of a Rail Rover to travel between locations without worrying about specific trains on advance tickets. So it wasn’t the usual rail dominated Rail Rover week as usual.

I never once felt unsafe on either the trains or buses on which I travelled nor in rail stations where there’s always a plentiful supply of hand sanitiser available and clean toilets.

However I found continuing inconsistencies on board trains which, perhaps unintentionally, give the impression there are risks and dangers around.

For example Transport for Wales, with whom I made five journeys, seem to be following a policy of not checking tickets and the guard staying firmly out of the way of passengers in the rear cab. The exception was on the Heart of Wales line where, of necessity, the guard appeared in the train to ask whether anyone wanted a request stop (to ensure the train stopped), and it seemed odd that interaction was possible but not the sale of a ticket. Anyone not boarding or alighting in Swansea or Shrewsbury where there are ticket gates, must be enjoying a free ride. Although on two of my three visits to Shrewsbury the gates were open anyway.

If it’s unsafe for a guard to pass through a train how is it safe for a passenger to do so? It all sounds a bit too over cautious to me. On one train between Hereford and Shrewsbury every seat was taken and a few were standing but I didn’t feel unsafe. Mask wearing compliance was very good.

On board announcements on GWR’s long distance trains give differing degrees of emphasis to seating arrangements. The Train Manager on my Paddington to Hereford train on Monday didn’t mention a ‘window seat only policy’ at all whereas on the Paddington to Penzance train on Thursday he insisted only window seats could be occupied and anyone sitting in the aisle seat would be moved.

Only window seats are reservable but the system dissuades travel, for example on my Penzance to Paddington journey yesterday GWR’s computer was saying the train was fully booked with the train “sold out” yet in First Class only 13 of the 86 seats in Coach K were reserved with plenty of seats available for the entire journey.

SeatFrog was also claiming the train was “sold out”.

All of Coach L was free too, and I settled down in that coach when boarding in Penzance to enjoy the five and a quarter hour journey to London only to be asked at Plymouth by the Customer Host boarding there if I’d move to Coach K “where there are plenty of seats” as he was going to set up the trolley in Coach L as a “static buffet” where passengers would come through the train to obtain refreshments as he’d individually risk assessed the situation and deemed it too risky to take the trolley through the train as “some passengers weren’t wearing masks” and others were sitting in aisle seats.

Yet between Penzance and Plymouth the Hosts had deemed it perfectly safe to take the trolley through the train as had been done on the Hereford train.

And you have to question if it’s unsafe for train staff to walk through a train with the trolley how is it safe for passengers to walk through to reach the trolley?

My original plan for yesterday was to travel back to London two hours later and board in St Austell so when in Barnstaple last Saturday I asked at the rather nice ticket office there if I could be booked in a forward facing window seat on the 15:10 departure.

I was given seat K01 which I happened to know is not a window seat (nor forward facing London bound) – it’s the only non-window seat – so I asked for another one but the computer was then saying the train was fully booked.

It put me off using that train. Needlessly so if the one I caught is any guide to how wrong the computer is.

There were more inconsistencies on my return journey from Exeter on Saturday which was formed of two 5-coach sets joined together rather than a nine-coach set. The Customer Host in the front set was unable to sell a ‘weekend upgrade’ to a woman who boarded the First Class section at the very front or issue her with a glass of wine (seems that’s the reason she wanted to upgrade) because “the Train Manager is in the rear section” and only he can sell an upgrade and that’s where the alcohol supply was too. So she had to get out at Tiverton Parkway and switch to the rear five coaches and sit in the First Class there.

She was advised to make her way through the train to the rear end of the First Class section before we reached Tiverton Parkway for fear of being left stranded on the platform there.

There was consternation at Newton Abbot on the way down to Penzance when a passenger needing assistance boarded at the rear of the nine coach train joining me in accessible Coach K but she wanted to alight at Redruth where that coach, and the next one, have the door locked due to a short platform.

There was talk of taking her on to Camborne (where there’s a full length platform) and getting a taxi to take her back to Redruth but she was wanting Helston and already had a taxi arranged to meet the train at Redruth so she wasn’t keen on that idea nor were the GWR staff able to pay for a taxi from Camborne to Helston. She said she’d manage to walk down part of the train while it stopped at Truro with help from a willing volunteer Customer Host – who presumably had individually risk assessed the task. I alighted at Bodmin Parkway so was unable to see how this ended.

Meanwhile over in LNER land you can’t travel without a reservation while Avanti West Coast have their dubious Standard Premium offer which in my experience so far means an empty former First Class coach. And all this at a time when passengers need to be encouraged back by making the railways welcoming and positive.

One great positive I took away from my travels with TfW and GWR was the much welcome complete absence of “see it, say it, sorted” announcements. Indeed on TfW there weren’t any auto announcements at all. The manual announcements were such a refreshing change.

If not repeating the ‘see it’ slogan on these train companies is deemed ok why do we get plagued with it from others?

On Gatwick Express trains – now being used on Southern branded journeys while the GEx brand hibernates during Covid – you not only get the auto announcements but a Customer Host, if on board, repeats everything just announced automatically. Not only that but as the train approaches Victoria you get the “thank you for travelling with Gatwick Express, we hope you’ve had a pleasant journey etc etc” auto announcement and its repeat in five other languages even though it’s NOT a Gatwick Express journey and numbers boarding at Gatwick Airport are minimal and almost certainly able to understand a “thank you” message in English. The Customer Host never checked my ticket on the four journeys I made as he walked through the First Class section – presumably another risk assessed Covid danger in doing so.

It’s as though no manager on the railway is able to take pragmatic sensible decisions these days and in the current Covid era it results in such ridiculous inconsistent policies continuing.

A shout out to East Midlands Railway who seemed to have the balance about right with sensible announcements about behaviour during your journey (groups may sit together etc), and impressively, the Customer Host on my journey from Sheffield to London on Wednesday was spraying tables with disinfectant during the journey giving the impression cleanliness really is a priority. He also handed out a leaflet telling passengers what EMR are doing to make our journeys safe.

Talking of Covid risk assessments I spotted this on an Arriva bus I travelled on in Holyhead on Monday evening.

It’s now over fifteen months since Covid restrictions were introduced and you’d think that was time enough for a more attractive way of indicating that seat isn’t to be used … what kind of welcome does this give passengers as they board? And Arriva are by no means alone here – many bus companies are just as bad. I’m not sure why this seat is out of bounds anyway.

On the subject of seats I sampled these on TfW’s refurbished Class 175 trains on a couple of journeys during the week.

The contrast with the Class 700 ironing boards couldn’t be more stark. TfW are to be congratulated on an excellent overall refurbishment of these trains. They’re a pleasure to travel in.

Still in Wales it’s reported TfW have deemed paper timetables to be potential vectors of transmission of Covid so have all been withdrawn. This is a complete nonsense of course and fortunately more enlightened bus companies are continuing to encourage passengers back with attractive publicity including the Cardiff Bus excellent brochure promoting leisure travel I featured recently.

But meanwhile the useful display stand in Cardiff Central rail station remains empty…

…. save for a few timetables for the Traws Cymru route T9 to Cardiff Airport which ironically was withdrawn at the start of lockdown last year and has yet to return.

Meanwhile in Cornwall it’s good to see First Kernow maintaining its information point and waiting room at St Ives bus station with its recent refurbishment too …

…. and supplies of timetable books and brochures. It all looks very welcoming. Not an inch of hazard tape in sight.

And in Newquay the former Western Greyhound travel shop in the bus station has also been refurbished by Go-Ahead run Transport for Cornwall …

… with timetable books available for its services throughout the county …

…. and large maps on the wall and real time departures on display.

And there’s even a customer toilet inside which was doing a roaring trade when I passed through on Thursday afternoon. It’s all very impressive.

The Visitor Information shop in Penzance sandwiched between the station and the bus station has a plentiful supply of First Kernow’s brochures …

…. and another lovely wall map (with bollard and upturned bucket too).

All this positive information availability is a much welcome contrast with the negative approach adopted by some other bus companies. But my plea to First Kernow snd Transport for Cornwall is to bury your differences and for the sake of promoting all public transport across the county for the benefit of passengers please stock each other’s timetables and brochures.

There’s no doubt First Kernow are going all out to promote buses as a leisure travel proposition as well as strong inter-town links and other key routes they operate while TfC are providing a substantial tendered network, and a very useful and comprehensive one too. In the main these objectives are complimentary to each other and all will benefit through a collaborative approach, not least passengers.

Branding for the ‘Coaster’ networks in Cornwall is impressively high profile while the Transport for Cornwall brand, with the help of significant public funding, has already made a smart impression across the county in a relatively short timescale. And I saw evidence yesterday while travelling in the Penzance area this work continues with more new bus stop plates being added.

It may lack coordination but at least it’s all there, in far too many places it’s embarrassing to have to wait at poorly presented bus stops and inside appalling bus shelters with no printed information.

My latest Rail Rover may be over but there’s still plenty more to explore. Indeed while you’re reading this I’m probably out and about again enjoying more of what Britain’s trains and buses have to offer.

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

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.

32 thoughts on “Rail Rover reflections Leave a comment

  1. I think the biggest issues with GWR is the number of people who take their trains, book a reservation and then sit elsewhere or don’t travel on that train at all. Yesterday I took a train from Swindon to reading and in my carriage almost all of the seats were supposedly reserved from Bristol to London but there were only people in about 5% of those “reserved seats”.

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  2. My wife and I travelled from Cardiff to London and bac by GWR a fortnight ago. There were no announcements at all about where to sit and reservations did not seem to be being enforced. What was particularly noticeable is the that indicators showed non-window seats as “available” even though the adjacent ones had been reserved. This may be a software thing: can a seat be shown as “reserved” if a ticket for it has not actually been sold? Nevertheless it gives the wrong impression. I did take the matter up with GW and have received a reply which doesn’t begin to address the issue. In general the staff were excellent especially one steward who went to extra mile in bringing coffees from the set kitchen as he didn’t have any hot water on his trolley. One thing (nothing to do with GW!) always annoys me: the scheduled times between Newport and Cardiff are far too generous which always means a dead stop outside Cardiff Central waiting for platform occupancy!

    On a different matter there have been complaints locally about overcrowding on TfW services. My understanding is that there is something of a stock shortage as the Pacers have now all gone but replacement stock is either experiencing teething troubles or hasn’t yet been commissioned. As a former user of London services on the Midland mainline it felt weird travelling on a former Class 319 under diesel power!

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    • Andrew – The scheduled times for trains between Newport and Cardiff have been generous (in part) for a long time. I used the train from Newport to Cardiff to get home on a few occasions when I had been working in Chepstow or Aberbeeg in 1976. At that time, the running time from Cardiff was 12 minutes, but in the other direction, it was 19 minutes – at least, if the train terminated at Cardiff. And there’s the clue – it did wonders for the punctuality statistics, which measured arrival times at the ultimate destination!

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  3. The whole reaction to Covid has been highly irrational and inconsistent.
    As it is a highly contagious and dangerous disease and restrictions were really necessary, but were always too late and often wrong
    If you do not touch people, do not get too close, avoid small unventilated spaces and have reasonable hygiene levels, you are probably safe. One can never be completely safe.
    So it is easy to see that the train companies have been over the top and very hostile to passengers, many who will now never go back. Buses have done better, and they have had the advantage of opening windows.
    My wife and I are retired and it is easy for retired people without child-minding duties to be safe, even though we enthusiastically used buses, trains, cafes and pubs whenever it was allowed. We did not get Covid.
    Unlucky people worked in places with almost no precautions, or could not resist touching their loved ones or going in people’s houses. Or they had to go to hospital for some reason.
    Workplaces and the NHS have been the super spreaders, not public transport or hospitality. Although if in the pub you hug people you are not safe!
    I had to visit my GP the other day and I was astonished to find they had the windows closed!
    A draught is your friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Find myself agreeing with the “train companies have been over the top and very hostile to passengers, many who will now never go back. Buses have done better” thought. Pre-Covid, my preferred route between HGT & LDS was by train, but I will be using the excellent Transdev Harrogate 36 bus for future journeys.

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  4. Thanks Roger for another fascinating report. My recent travels by train (mainly on LNER) show a lot of inconsistency in on-board information, messages and ticket checks. The repetitive auto-announcements are particularly irritating and sometimes just wrong. Perhaps ScotRail has this about right. On Northern and South Eastern I’ve suffered four train cancellations – all allegedly because of “fault on the train” but at least one of these definitely wasn’t as it was a deleted station stop to claw back a couple of minutes of late running – I think that practice especially on an hourly service is totally unacceptable. Very limited bus travel recently but the beautifully presented Lothian fleet is always impressive – unfortunately even here all printed material has been withdrawn “because of Covid” – I’m not sure if this is because of the perceived risk of infection or because of frequent service changes.
    Best wishes – Mike Hodges

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  5. I think this whole seat reservation nonsense has to stop and certainly after 19th July things should revert to pre-covid arrangements where people book a seat only if they want to. Also with Advance preferably people should be reserved onto a specific train but not a seat such as I believe remains the case with South Western Railway. Furthermore the Cross Country system of reserving a seat mid journey must stop. Many people have flexible tickets, passes or rovers.

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  6. I made my first public transport trip last week. The main leg of the journey was by XC and this was troublesome. National Rail would only allow me to buy tickets from XC but the ticket I was after was not available from XC , who were happy to sell some much more expensive tickets.

    On board they were keen on revenue protection but had no resources for catering in my half of the train. It might help if they let passengers know in advance so that they could make alternative arrangements. The general feel of the carriage did not shout clean and there was no evidence of cleaning en route.

    Travelling on a Nat Ex West Midlands bus was less compliant on mask wearing, but at least the company was not trying to deter passengers like XC.

    Finally I have never travelled backwards on a plane so wondered why they call them airline seats when half of them are going backwards.

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  7. Really good write up. The inconsistencies are alarming.

    Arriva Bus have been issuing the guidance “Please sit alone where possible, however, be aware that on busy journeys you may need to sit next to another customer.” since the end of May, which makes it even more bizarre that the 2m buffer zone still exists around the front of the bus. You’re never going to convince passengers that it is safe to sit next to one another, when the driver has a partition wall behind them, a screen to the left of them and still needs 2m distance. This is by no means just Arriva.

    Nexus in Tyne and Wear have went to the extreme of removing seating in some of their bus stations, and the toilets are still closed to the public and for their staff only “because of covid”. Not even allowing drivers to use them. Crazy.

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  8. The coordination issue in Cornwall isn’t about burying differences but about ensuring that a half baked solution doesn’t actually compound the situation.
    We’re working towards interoperability of tickets in the very near future, which then makes coordinated information logical without having to explain what parts of the whole network you can’t us what different tickets across and what constitutes a young person, family etc.

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  9. Interesting that the “see it, say it, sorted” announcements have reduced or ceased since the Manchester Arena bombing enquiry report a couple of weeks ago. Not the BTPs finest hour.

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  10. “over in LNER land you can’t travel without a reservation”

    Hah. If only.
    LNER have never made the slightest attempt to enforce the supposedly-mandatory seat reservations, and anyone who travels on a train stopping at Stevenage can watch people walking over from the Thamelink platform to jump on the LNER train to Kings Cross; you can be pretty sure none of them have reservations.

    As is normal for LNER (and their predecessors), they make plenty of aggressive and threatening announcements but it’s all bark and no bite. There are no ticket checks, nobody pays any attention to face coverings any more and the much vaunted cleaning is hit and miss, varying from nothing at all to someone wandering through with a bin bag demanding rubbish to somebody actually cleaning handrails and things.

    EMR are exactly the same in my experience, to the extent that I’ve even seen a so-called “Covid Clean Team” person get on a train with their “Covid Safe cleaning kit” (sounds much better than a bottle of cleaning spray and some blue kitchen roll, doesn’t it?) then sit down at a table and spend the entire journey messing with their phone. Not really surprising though as a member of EMT staff told me that the “Covid Clean Team” are actually the trolley stewards from Rail Gourmet dragged back in from furlough rather than actual cleaners. But EMR will at least enliven your local train journey with a shouty auto-announcement about wearing a face covering which is played after every stop and is at least three times the volume of any announcement made by the staff on the train. Drives you mad, especially as it’s blatantly ignored by a significant proportion of the passengers who seem to believe that the correct place for a face covering is either around their chin or on the table.

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  11. If you want the most bizarre and complex Covid seating arrangment’s try H C Chambers (part of GoAhead Group+

    Upstairs Front Year 9 (Yellow Zone)
    Middle Year 10 (Orange Zone)
    Back Year 11 (Pink Zone)

    Downstairs Front Year 7 (Blue Zone)
    Downstairs Back Year 8 (Green Zone)

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  12. The whole saga convinces me that what I always thought, was right. That everything is an excuse for us to do as we please.
    The only thing I’ve never quite understood, is why we need the excuse.

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  13. Buses for the longest time were the only electric alternative on the roads. Public transit, in the early days of the Twentieth Century, USED to be electric … until General Motors broke the law by influencing public selection for gasoline-powered vehicles. It is typical that they never got caught nor punished.

    — Catxman

    http://www.catxman.wordpress.com

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  14. We have found this week [Fleet to Salisbury 2 trains each way, that SWR has more annoying, and sometimes too loud, train announcements than ever, certainly no reduction at all, but as far as spacing goes, nothing seems to be marked or enforced any more.
    Nor is there any spacing on Stagecoach buses here. Few notices and certainly no timetables anywhere as Stagecoach seem not to want passengers any more.

    Travelling to Exeter last month, SWR still refuse to bring back seat reservations, scrapped by SWT many years ago. Travelling back 50 or more Sherborne schoolboys got into our 3 car train at Sherborne ,presumably starting a half term week. No restriction on them – does SWR have any staff at stations? No inspectors came around and there are no buffet trolleys at all during Covid. No trolley could have got through anyway.

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  15. Re the passenger on the Penzanze train wanting to alight at Redruth: could the train stop as normal, and then simply move forward to allow the rear coaches to align with the platforms? Or does Selective Door Opening not allow that?

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  16. My immediate thought was: Nice to have £539.90 spare to be able to blow on a jaunt round the country, considering that doesn’t cover any accommodation or anything that most people would consider proper food beyond a few bags of crisps and a coffee etc, and that’s the DISCOUNTED rate of course – middle age persons who’d like to buy one are offered no cheaper options, being expected to find over £800 each… maybe that’s why people generally shun the staycation… it’s mostly cheaper to go to the canaries than Cornwall!

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    • Especially as your banned from traveling into a number of London terminals and into Birmingham New Street for much of the morning.

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  17. Interesting account.

    The reservation fetish is very offputting. When I try to book online for a local trip, Great Western keep telling me that my train is fully booked, which I ignore. The conductor on the train at my unstaffed local station is happy to sell me the ticket, and I find all three trains involved in my trip are at least half empty So, for me it is a harmless nonsense. But for people less versed in railway matters it is more serious. I was talking on one of the trains to a young lady who had tried to book on line, got the fully booked response and then booked first class, where Great Western admitted there were available seats (first class only available on the main line bit of the journey) – naturally she was not all that impressed to learn that there were plenty of standard class seats on the main line train, and that she had been made to waste money on a first class ticket.

    I think that the TOCs have alienated a lot of people with their attitude to people who just want to travel. And it is so British to use covid-19 as an excuse to skip refreshment trollies, shut toilets etc. In Pembrokeshire, I tried to buy a West Wales Explorer from the conductor (the website says you can), only to be told that they weren’t issuing them ‘because of covid’. Laziness is the more likely explanation..

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    • Some years ago and a long time before pandemic I recall Barry Doe reporting that someone had bought an Off Peak return probably from Trainline and the system insisted that a seat reservation was given, even though it was not required. The passenger then assumed that because they had that reservation on a specific train then that is the train they needed to take, being unaware that they had a ticket for any train subject to date and any time restriction.

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  18. Well, the whole issue of ticket validities is impenetrable for the usual punter to know and almost impossible for those who have some knowledge! (It used to cover a couple of pages in the old ABC Rail Guides).

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  19. I suspect that the reason for keeping the Guard out of sight is a combination of

    The passenger is only a passenger, with normal H&S rights.

    The Guard being an employee has an elevated status – employee, safety worker, and union woman or man.

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  20. I do remember a journey – years ago – from Cromer to Norwich (the train having originated at Sheringham). This was a “paytrain” service with the conductor/guard issuing and checking tickets. He only appeared from his hidey-hole about 10 minutes before arrival … so how much revenue was lost?

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  21. Once again went on a cross country train today, plenty of seats and no seat checks at all
    One thing I will give Lner is that I do believe their sold out services do actually not have any seats remaining but since you can reserve seats for free many of those seats are reserved but then not used – if I’m not sure out of 5 trains which one I’ll take I’ll just book all of them

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  22. The LNER web seat booking site has a limiter on the number of seats you can book in any 24 hour period using the same login email address, obviously this can be circumvented by using different email addresses and different logins.

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    • Yeah if I’m honest I’ve got 4 accounts running – if I’m travelling on an open return I expect to be able to get whatever train I want. Tbh it probably helps provide seats for the plenty of people who will board without a reservation

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  23. LNER have introduced compulsory seat reservations “because of covid”, while EMR have suspended seat reservations “because of covid”.

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    • And Avanti just recommend seat reservations, whilst some other TOCs make no comment. A couple of weeks ago I was on an EMR train from Sheffield to Liverpool with virtually every seat occupied – no reservations. We are all human beings so why the difference between which TOC train you travel on? The Government need to get a grip and insist these compulsory reservations are removed – but surely LNER is operated by Directly Operated Railways anyway.

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