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.