My Hundred Best Train Journeys 3

Sunday 2nd December 2018

Back on track(s) again to describe thirty more wonderful train trips, ranked 31-60 in My Hundred Best Train Journeys.

For the Top 30 previously published click here and here.

31 Exeter – Exmouth

I love this journey not only for the truly superb views as the train trundles along the east side of the River Exe towards Exmouth – not surprisingly they’re just as delightful as travelling down the west side towards Dawlish – but also for the quirkiness of Lympstone Commando request station.

IMG_2341There was a time when alighting here was strictly a no no, unless you had business at the Royal Marines training centre adjacent to the station. Forbiddingly high fences topped with barbed wire together with a manned entry gate put paid to any thought of wandering from the platform. Of course you could alight and simply wait on the platform for the next train – it is after all a public station on the National Rail network – but it wasn’t encouraged.

IMG_2339Now a public footpath has been constructed alongside the tracks from the previous station, Exton, so you can now officially board and alight at Lympstone Commando without worrying about prying eyes provided you keep to that footpath! And ignore the forbidding sign still in situ.

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32 Ipswich – Lowestoft

Felixstowe - January 2014 012Suffolk is an underrated county in the scenic beauty stakes but a ride on the East Suffolk Line will soon correct any such descriptive misunderstandings. ‘The line links villages, ancient treasures, and some of the best walking and cycling countryside in Suffolk. From historic Ipswich, travel to Woodbridge and be intrigued by the picturesque tide mill on the River Debden’ – well, that’s the enticing blurb from Greater Anglia’s website. And it’s quite right, Woodbridge is splendid with its lovely views alongside the River Deben flowing out to sea, as is the rest of the journey along the Waveney Valley all the way to Oulton Broad South where you travel along the southern boundary of the Norfolk Broads National Park before reaching the eastern most point of England at Lowestoft, sadly a shadow of its former station self.

IMG_8141I have a vivid memory as a child of a train journey from Liverpool Street taking us via Lowestoft and on to Gorleston-on-Sea (the station’s long since gone) for a summer holiday. Sadly that line along the coast to Great Yarmouth was closed in 1970 – but at least there’s a lovely retro sign still displayed at Lowestoft Station as a reminder of the old days.

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33 Halifax – Hebden Bridge – Rochdale/Burnley

IMG_8665We’re in that lovely part of England where West Yorkshire meets Greater Manchester across the Pennine peaks, moors and reservoirs. The train takes you alongside the River Calder, the Rochdale Canal and the River Roch for pretty much the whole journey and pretty is definitely the word. It’s also worth taking a ride up to Burnley where the tracks divide at Hall Royd Junction just east of Todmorden as it’s a delightful climb up via Cornholme and Holme Chapel with splendid views across Heptonstall Moor. You can now retrace your journey along the track of the new Todmorden curve to continue to Rochdale.

There’s also nowhere better to break this gorgeous journey for a stop off than Hebden Bridge and savour the delightful heritage and preservation of this fine station.

IMG_8667Moreover, you can hop on the Keighley Bus Company’s B3 bus route through Bronte Country on a wonderful journey via Haworth to Keighley (and include a ride on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway too) before returning to Hebden Bridge to conclude the ride westwards. Truly splendid.

34 Oxenholme – Windermere

We’ve travelled round the western side of the Lake District (the Cumbrian Line at entry no 16); we’ve zoomed up the West Coast Main Line and glimpsed the eastern side (entry no 7) now we’re wandering up the “no through road” that is the line from Oxenholme to Windermere. Any disappointment that trains only take you so far into the wonderful Lake District is made up by the fantastic network of bus routes Stagecoach provide from outside Windermere station, not least the famous 555 northwards via Grasmere to Keswick.

IMG_1202This line hit the news in the summer when West Coast Railways stepped in with loco hauled rolling stock while Northern Trains went through its post 20 May 2018 timetable meltdown. It certainly made a change from the usual trains and brought home just how many tourists use this line – the trains I travelled on were packed and they definitely weren’t all train enthusiasts.

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35 Leeds – Huddersfield – Manchester

IMG_8839This line is much more than the rail equivalent of the M62 across the Pennines. It certainly feels as busy as the M62, but rather than battling with fellow motorists, you battle with fellow passengers on a Trans Pennine Express train. If you’re lucky you’ll manage to bag a seat and enjoy some great views especially between Slaithwaite and Marden (look out of the right hand side for Moss Moor and Rishworth Moor in the distance). If you’re very lucky and choose a quiet time to travel you’ll be able to switch from one side of the train to the other as the best views vary during the journey. Be warned though, almost immediately after Marsden there’s the 3 mile long Standedge Tunnel which doesn’t offer such good views!

Huddersfield 1 - June 2010It’s definitely worth breaking the journey at Huddersfield not only for a chat with the key member of station staff – Felix the Cat – but also to marvel at the huge station building and the way the outside has been rejuvenated with rising fountains out of the paving stones.

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36 Stockton – Newcastle

IMG_1762This is a great journey for taking in the delights of the splendid Tees to Tyne coastline, especially between Hartlepool and Seaham. Hartlepool’s got a bit of a quirk about it too. If you fancy seeing how to spend around £4 million on a grand ‘transport interchange’ with impressive bus shelters, walkways, real time signs etc all adjacent to the station building, as happened in 2010 (see below), then its worth a nose around.

Northumberland - September 2014 071Unfortunately it’s unlikely you’ll see any buses since they nearly all serve the main town centre instead. You can almost count the number of buses that serve the station per day on the fingers of two hands.

Further on the train passes through Sunderland which must be one of the darkest and dingiest stations on the network but then the journey redeems itself again as it re-enters the light and crosses the River Wear on an impressive bridge sharing tracks with the Tyne & Wear Metro all the way to Heworth and then into Newcastle.

37 Shrewsbury – Hereford – Newport

IMG_1416From Shropshire through Herefordshire to Monmothshire. This train journey takes you through two fine English counties before arriving into the south-eastern corner of Wales. It’s a delightful ride as the scenery varies along the way, but is always characterised by extensive views across vast expanses of countryside. Stations at Ludlow, Leominster and Abergavenny are a delight and stop off at Craven Arms for a delightful weekend ride on the Shropshire Hills Shuttles – minibuses which take you around Long Mynd and Stiperstones.

IMG_1516For train buffs there’s the wonderful signal box just outside Shrewsbury to get the journey off to a great start and if you want to really spoil yourself take the ‘Gerald of Wales’ train which currently runs once a day from Holyhead to Cardiff in the morning serving breakfast and returning in the late afternoon/evening serving dinner. Seat reservations are highly recommend to avoid disappointment. The new Transport for Wales franchise has plans to increase the number of journeys.

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38 Newcastle – Carlisle

You’ll have gathered by now as well as coastal train journeys I also love following the course of rivers as I look out of train windows, and none more so than this journey along the River Tyne as it heads inland towards Hexham and Haltwhistle.

IMG_1615I also love the Haltwhistle station name; for some reason, I’ve no idea why, it always makes me smile whenever I travel to or through it. Even more bizarre are the platform shelters at stations along the line, all emblazoned with a large platform number (either 1 or 2) sign.

IMG_1657A great multi modal way of enjoying this journey is to take the jointly operated Arriva/Stagecoach Cross Pennine branded route X65 which also runs from Newcastle to Carlisle to Newcastle via Hexham and Haltwhistle. I reckon a bus/train ticket aimed at tourists would be just the job – out by bus and return back by train, what’s not to like?

39 Chester – Holyhead

IMG_4018Another lovely journey with coastal views all along the north Wales coastline. The journey begins alongside the River Dee and there’s an odd sighting between Flint and Prestatyn of the abandoned passenger ferry ship, the Duke of Lancaster, moored in Llanerch-y-Mor; worth looking out for – you can’t miss it. For much of the journey after Rhyl the tracks vie with the expanded A55 dual carriageway for the narrow space along the coastline; luckily for most of the journey the tracks win but for a short stretch just before Colwyn Bay road engineers managed to swing the road over the railway, along the coastline and then back under the tracks again after about a mile – it’s an amazing feat of engineering.

However the highlight of the journey comes at Conwy. Just after the station the tracks cross the River Conwy and you get a magnificent view, and pass right alongside, Conwy Castle.

IMG_4620Almost as exciting is the next stage of the journey after Bangor when it’s into Anglesey across the Menai Strait on the impressive Britannia Bridge.

I’ll name check the first station in Anglesey as I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Yes, it’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Except it isn’t really; it’s all a bit attention seeking, over-hyped and contrived, but still worth a stop off for a selfie!

IMG_5996The journey terminus at Holyhead is another ‘shadow of its former self’ station and looks rather forlorn, forgotten and seen better days. A rather sad end to what is otherwise another lovely coastal journey.

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40 Carlisle – Kilmarnock – Glasgow

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 18.36.25This journey is the alternative to the main West Coast Line. It’s not for those in a hurry taking 2 hours 22 minutes which coincidentally is exactly double the 1 hour 11 minutes journey time by travelling direct, but it’s well worth giving it a go, for the lovely scenery which Dumfries and Galloway offers as you wander through Gretna Green and on to Kilmarnock. Some journeys link up with the Newcastle – Carlisle line (entry no 38) to provide a through four hours of scenic enjoyment.

41 Gloucester – Severn Tunnel Junction

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OK, perhaps this is the journey alongside a river to beat all journeys alongside a river. After leaving Gloucester (check out the amazingly long platform there) the train heads towards Lydney and Chepstow and it’s absolutely essential to grab a seat on the nearside in the southbound direction for fantastic views of the meandering River Severn as it grows from a meandering stream (OK, not quite, but you get the picture) into a torrenting river flowing into the Bristol Channel. You get some great views of the two Severn Bridges on the horizon too.

42 Llanelli – Pembroke Dock

South Wales - August 2013 014And yet another coastal ride to rival Dawlish, Cambrian, Cumbrian and the East Sussex Coast. The views across Carmarthen Bay are superb as is the scenery alongside the River Tywi as it meanders towards Carmarthen. The journey takes you past the request station called Ferryside, so named presumably because a ferry dating back 1,000 years used to ply across the estuary to the village of Llansteffan. Sadly the ferry ceased in the 1950s but this summer, thanks to a £300,000 Coastal Communities grant it was back again with what’s described as “something 007 like” – a boat with wheels which is as happy in the water as it is driving up the shore. Definitely something for my to do list next year to check it out.

IMG_4199Carmarthen has an interesting turnback station arrangement with two platforms from where the tracks continued on to Newcastle Emlyn and Aberystwyth until closure in 1965. So for this journey it’s a change of end for the driver and we’re back through Whitland and branch off south-westwards towards the lovely resort of Tenby and finally to Pembroke Dock; probably the most understated terminus on the network, hidden away in a narrow residential street.

43 Preston – Colne

Colne 2 - October 2013Colne is the dead-end to beat all dead-ends and in the nicest possible way. After travelling for 70 minutes from Preston on a line which has the claim to fame of the most delightful sounding station names along the journey (Pleasington followed by Cherry Tree as well as Church & Oswaldwistle) ….

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IMG_8947…you finally arrive at the buffers from where at one time trains would continue via the village of Earby over to Skipton. Ah, those must have been the days, and indeed it’s one of the rail reinstatements campaigners won’t give up on. It was only a few years ago I travelled to Colne and the driver had to lean out the cab at the final level crossing to pull on a piece of string strategically hanging alongside the track at cab window level which would operate a red light to stop traffic crossing its path. Fantastic. Sadly now replaced with more conventional technology.

44 Folkestone – Dover

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 16.49.40The way the track hugs the coastline overlooking the busiest shipping lane in the world that is the English Channel on this train journey is very reminiscent of the section of line between Dawlish and Teignmouth as it travels through arched gaps in the cliffs and two short tunnels. That’s why it’s a special journey, and one well deserved within my Best Fifty Train journeys.

45 Buxton – Manchester

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I’ve already commented on the delightful bus routes in Derbyshire when highlighting entry No 30 (Derby – Matlock), and if you took up my suggestion of travelling on the TransPeak bus from Matlock to Buxton, as it no longer continues to Manchester via the traditional A6 the obvious alternative is to jump on a Northern train at the wonderful Buxton station and admire the scenery from the train window instead. You won’t be disappointed.

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IMG_6859Buxton is a lovely quirky station as shown in these photographs and still shows signs of the golden age of railways when trains did continue from Matlock entering Buxton across viaducts still in place today. Freight trains are still a regular site at the nearby Dove Holes limestone quarry using the tracks up to the Hope Valley line at Edale.

Many of the stations are really delightful with some wonderful floral displays, not least the self procalimed Capital of the Peak, Chapel-en-Le-Firth – one of three stations with Le in its name.

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46 Truro – Falmouth

IMG_4139Back to the West Country branch lines for this journey down to Falmouth which includes the novel passing loop at Penryn where the single track line allows trains to pass and both serve the same extended platform. It’s just as well it works efficiently as the end to end running time for this journey is very tight requiring very precise timekeeping. Don’t be tempted to alight at Falmouth Town, as the murals at Falmouth Docks (the terminus) are well worth a look.

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47 Norwich – Berney Arms – Great Yarmouth

Anglian-Cumbria-Aberdeen - June 2012 047As I compile this list, the section of track from Reedham to Great Yarmouth via the infamous Berney Arms is closed for some months while track and signals are upgraded. This is a great shame for lovers of manually operated old style level crossing gates as can be seen above in action at the lovely Brundall station along the route.

IMG_1884When the works are completed, you really must add this to your bucket list of train journeys, not particularly for the scenery – it’s as unexciting as crossing Romney Marsh in Kent – but just so you can alight at Berney Arms one of Britain’s wackiest stations with no road access and only a footpath across fields to the nearby Broads or onwards to Burgh Castle and eventually Great Yarmouth. Sadly the nearby pub to the station with its only access either by boat or on foot closed down a year or two ago; perhaps not surprising given its remote location.

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48 Cardiff – Ebbw Vale Town

A rail line reinstatement success story. Reopened as recently as 2008 to Ebbw Vale Parkway and reaching the Ebbw Vale Town terminus seven years later in 2015, trains are now so busy the train company has to double up units with at least two conductors on board to try and collect all the revenue. It’s a lovely twisty ride round one bend after another as the train climbs the Ebbw River valley towards Ebbw Vale.

IMG_3076There’s a cable car lift to take you from the station up to the town centre to top off your ride, but whenever I’ve travelled it’s sadly been out-of-order (I see online it’s been closed 252 times over a three-year period), but it’s easy to wander to the nearby bus stops and take a Stagecoach X4 bus through the town and on to the Heads of the Valley road before taking you down to Merthyr Tydfil or Pontrypridd either for an alternative train ride back into Cardiff, or stay on the bus which also continues there.

49 Brockenhurst – Lymington Pier

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I haven’t been on this line for a year or so and my memories of recent journeys were when it was the last outpost of slam door carriages in the south. Not only that but the station at Lymington is a wonderful cross between a station and a heritage railway museum and is well worth a visit to compliment a lovely journey, particularly the first short section between the Pier and Town stations with full on views of Lyminton Marina. A lovely circular trip includes the ferry across to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight and then a Southern Vectis bus to Newport and on to Shanklin returning on the train to Ryde Pier (see entry 54 below). Even better, if you have the time, take the open top Needles Breezer to Alum Bay (including the ride up to the Battery) then route 12 to Newport.

50 Corby –  Melton Mowbray

Corby - May 2014This is the first ‘Parliamentary Train’ entry in my Hundred Best Train Journeys, and good to see it bookend the top fifty. It’s certainly not because of the rather clinical architecture of Corby station (photographed above), but purely because of the wonderful Welland Viaduct (also called the Harringworth Viaduct after the nearby village) and the amazing views across to Eyebrook Reservoir and beyond which are truly stunning.

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It’s well worth making your way to Corby for the one departure of the day which leaves at 0926 on Mondays to Fridays and travels this route. There’s a southbound journey from Derby at 1625 (or closer to Corby, from Melton Mowbray at 1709) but that’s only worth a ride in the Spring to Autumn when it’s light.

51 Leeds – Morecambe – Heysham Port

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This line, known as the Bentham Line (it passes through Bentham), shares the same tracks as the Leeds – Settle – Carlisle (entry no 4) as far as Long Preston just north of Hellifield before branching off on its own western course through some delightful North Yorkshire and Lancashire countryside and calling at the superbly named Giggleswick (always makes me smile) and the next station, which is of course Clapham – no, not the more famous Junction, but just plain Clapham. After a couple more stations the train crosses the West Coast Main Line and arrives at Carnforth (already visited on the Cumbrian Coast Line – entry no 11) before nipping down to Lancaster. Only half of the eight journeys a day then reverse back up the line and turn off to Morecambe (photographed below) but there is an hourly shuttle train which runs between Lancaster and Morecambe providing the main link to the resort.

Morecambe 1 - July 2014

Best of all is the one shuttle journey a day which continues on to Heysham Port. It leaves Lancaster at 1249 (MS) arriving 1317. The absolute best bit, and the reason to make the journey is to see the driver jump down from the cab and change the points (shades of Liskeard-Looe, except it’s the guard’s job there) after leaving Morecambe  where the train retraces its route for a few yards before turning almost 360 degrees southwards again towards Heysham. The same happens on the reverse journey into Morecambe after the train heads back at 1320 after only a three-minute turnround (times are slightly different on a Sunday), so there’s not long to soak up the atmosphere at Heysham Port – mind you as you can see from the photograph below, there’s not much atmosphere to soak up!

Heysham Port 1 - July 2013

52 Salisbury – Exeter

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It’s odd that there are long sections of this important rail route that are single track, making for timekeeping challenges when disruption occurs, as it’s all too easy for knock on effects as one late train impacts on another and so on. There are some lovely stations along this route including Tisbury and Templecombe and Yeovil Junction where there’s a handy connecting line to Yeovil Pen Mill on the Weymouth to Castle Cary line. This junction is now used by South Western Railway trains (and SWT before, who started the trend) of linking Salisbury with Castle Cary on a circular routing a few times a day.

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The journey takes you through the beautiful countryside offered by Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon (photographed above between Axminster and Honiton – spot the roof of the Stagecoach bus on the parallel route 4)

53 Aberdeen – Inverness

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This journey north starts from the far northern end of one of Aberdeen’s longest platforms and heads straight into a tunnel under Aberdeen’s commercial centre. This contrasts with the rather pleasant brightness of the station’s passenger circulating area.

The first time I took this journey involved an early morning departure heading north from Aberdeen and I couldn’t understand why the train was so packed until everyone got off at the first station, Dyce, where there are major industrial and employment opportunities. The rest of the journey which takes a north then north-western arc until a few miles south of the north coast overlooking Moray Firth at Elgin where it takes a western trajectory towards Nairn and Inverness. Interestingly the tracks pass close to both Aberdeen and Inverness airports, but the nearby station at Dyce is not particularly convenient for the former and there’s no station for the latter. Not surprisingly Stagecoach do well with a bus route to both airports, as well as routes to Fraserburgh and Peterhead in the north-east corner of Aberdeenshire which are also completely by-passed by the train.  It’s a great train journey, though, and well deserving of a 53rd placing.

54 Ryde Pier Head – Shanklin

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Yes, this is the ride specifically for the train. Oh, and also for the first half mile as the train clutters along Ryde Pier to Ryde Esplanade station. It’s a real nostalgic trip back in time to when Underground trains cluttered and swayed as these carriages from 1938 still do all the way down to Shanklin. When the Isle of Wight steam railway is running, trains stop at Smallbrook Junction which is another station to add to the list of having no road access; indeed not any access, as the only way out (or in) is on a steam train.

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Sadly the only passing loop now in use is at Sandown, two-thirds of the way down to Shankin so instead of a half hourly service, it offers a less attractive 20/40 split. There’s talk of introducing former London Underground D stock to the line in the new guise of Class 230 trains. It certainly won’t be the same peering into the sidings and sheds at St John’s Road, Ryde as you pass through the station and not see the spare 1938 stock any longer.

55 Horsham – Barnham

IMG_5213This journey through the wonderful South Downs provides some spectacular views of Britain’s newest National Park especially as the train heads between Pulborough, Amberley and Arundel along the Arun Valley. There are some fantastic views of Arundel Castle (just above the Stagecoach bus in the photograph above) as well as the River Arun.

Amberley is another station depicting a lovely mural, this one showing a Southdown bus appropriately as the wonderful Amberley Museum is alongside the station with its transport theme and is a must visit.

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IMG_5208Barnham is a surprisingly busy junction station as trains meet from Bognor, Littlehampton and the West Coastway and is well worth a look around.

56 Hull – Scarborough

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My favourite station on this journey is Bridlington where it’s definitely worth breaking off to savour the lovely restoration and refreshment facilities, making for quite a contrast with Filey a little further on which is not worth breaking your journey for.

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On arriving at Scarborough wander over to platform 1 and marvel at the longest station platform seat in the country, if not the world. It really is worth a wander and a photo.

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57 Leeds – Harrogate – York

The Leeds to Harrogate part of this journey has bus competition from probably Britain’s most luxurious buses on the Transdev Blazefield route 36 running every 10 minutes. But Northern have recently introduced nicely refurbished former ScotRail class 170 trains which are a huge improvement on the old Pacers and there are plans to increase the frequency too. It’s a lovely journey from West Yorkshire into North Yorkshire and both Harrogate (where there’s an interesting car park next to the station and footbridge arrangement photographed below) and Knaresborough are worth a stop off to explore, not least for Betty’s Tea Rooms in the former.

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The line doesn’t promote its ultimate destination at either the Leeds or Harrogate end of the route as it’s quicker to get a direct train but if you’re not in a rush it’s well worth a ride and don’t forget to work in a trip on the 36 too!

58 Brighton – Seaford

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Lewes is a lovely station full of charm and the line to Seaford follows the course of the River Ouse to Newhaven where the town’s three stations includes one of the shortest distances between two stations Newhaven Town to Newhaven Harbour as well as the quirky short stub to Newhaven Marine which is very much a closed station with a platform out of bounds and demolished station buildings (to the left of the signal box shown below) yet is still officially open – indeed it has a Parliamentary Train except no passengers can board it.

IMG_5217Further along the single track to the small single platform terminal station at Seaford with views out to the Channel, the penultimate station is Bishopstone with its amazing Art Deco architecture with a strong hint of the Charles Holden designs for Piccadilly Line Underground stations. Indeed it’s said it was modelled on Arnos Grove. It’s looking a bit unloved and sorry for itself these days.

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The rather isolated station at Southease between Lewes and Newhaven is handy for walkers taking the South Downs Way which crosses the railway at the station, and where there isn’t much else.

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59 York – Scarborough

Another journey to marvel at a meandering river – the River Derwent – as the train heads eastwards to the coast. Indeed for a few miles it literally twists and turns along the banks of the river as it passes Kirkham Abbey before reaching Malton station, notable for its sole platform for trains in both directions. If you didn’t marvel at the longest seat in the world when you journeyed into Scarborough from Hull (entry no 56) then now’s the time for a good long sit down (literally).

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60 Norwich – Sherringham

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This journey is notable for the link to the lovely Bure Valley railway along the delightful River Bure at Hoveton and Wroxham, the call at Cromer with its reverse out again manoeuvre (a resort sadly past its prime although worth a stop off for a nostalgic stroll down the pier) and the rather basic terminus at Sherringham consisting of just a platform and shelter …..

Sherringham 2 - January 2014……..except the track continues across a level crossing (including through a delightful seating area, as photographed below) to provide access to the North Norfolk Railway. Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 19.13.24From Sherringham as well as the option of taking the North Norfolk Railway to Holt there’s the Coasthopper bus along the north Norfolk coast to Wells-Next-The-Sea for an onward connection to the Coastliner 36 route to Kings Lynn run by Lynx making for an adventurous circular day out from London.

The final part 4 of My Hundred Best Train Journeys (no 61 – 100) will be posted later this month.

Roger French

My Hundred Best Train Journeys 2

Thursday 15th November 2018

Following the top ten listing in Part 1, welcome to the next twenty most wonderful train journeys around Britain – they’re part of my Hundred Best Train Journeys. Read along for the rides ……

11  Shrewsbury – Llandrindod – Swansea 

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After the Cambrian Coast line entry in tenth place, we’re still in Wales for number 11 – the scenically spectacular Heart of Wales Line. In addition to the gorgeous Welsh mountain scenery, this journey offers the intrigue of a multitude of request stations, beautifully well kept country stations and the very best station to alight and board right across Wales (yes it even beats that slightly contrived 58 lettered one in Anglesey – which we’ll come to later in the list); it is of course the quirky named Sugar Loaf.

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Not only is it well worth getting off at Sugar Loaf to savour its isolation and remoteness but also to enjoy the surprised expression on the train guard/conductor’s face when you ask for the train to stop there. And you simply can’t beat the fun of hailing the next train with a clear signal to the driver from such a rarely used station. When I visited it last year, I was taken aback while exploring the platform to be joined by a man who’d just arrived from the nearby road. I don’t know who was more surprised: him to see me, or me being joined by another potential passenger. In the event it turned out he was from the local community group who look after the floral displays and keep the platform tidy at this and other stations; so we had a lovely chat all about Sugar Loaf and the line.

There are many other wonderful stations along the line – one journey (the 0604 from Swansea to Crewe) serves the most stations in Britain at 41, including 16 request stops. Transport for Wales have plans to increase the number of journeys per day along the line (currently there are only four through journeys with a couple of shorts from either end) but in the meantime careful planning is needed if you want to get off and explore the stations, but some are served by buses, including the main stop at Llandrindod (Wells) right outside the station, making for other great journey opportunities.

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Llandrindod Wells

12  Sheffield – Manchester

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The single track alongside Dore and Totley

Criss-crossing the Derbyshire Peak District by bus is a particular favourite pastime of mine, and right up there with the best of those bus scenic busters is taking the train along the Hope Valley Line. It’s quite bizarre for such a major strategic route that the line is reduced to a short stretch of single track through Dore and Totley which can sometimes cause delays, especially if an express then gets caught behind a stopper, but if you’re just travelling for the pleasure of the scenery it gives more time to relish the scenic delights as the train passes along the seventeen miles between Totley Tunnel and Cowburn Tunnel – ticking off the delightfully named stations through Crindleford, Bamford, Hope and Edale.

13  Glasgow – Stranraer

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Old style BR corporate identity on display back in 2013

Sadly since the ferries left for a new terminal further up the coast, Stranraer is a shadow of its former self; almost a ghost station, but it’s certainly worth the journey down there from Glasgow to enjoy the coastal views through Troon and Prestwick and the gorgeous countryside views particularly on the thirteen mile single line stretch once you leave Ayr.  There’s a lovely signal box at the penultimate station, Barhill, where driver and signalman swap tokens. There are now only four direct journeys per day from Glasgow to Stranraer (and two back) with others starting/finishing at Kilmarnock and some only going as far as Girvan, missing out the Barrhill section; which is not to be missed.

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The highest station on the line is Barrhill

If you want time to explore the desolation of Stranraer – it’s worth a nose round to see how things used to be – don’t worry that the train usually turns round quickly and there’s a long wait for the next one, as there’s a lovely ride back along the coast to Ayr on Stagecoach bus routes 360/60.

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The desolate ferry terminal on the left and a pair of semaphore signals on the right

14  Liskeard – Looe

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Trains set off heading north from the Looe bound platform at Liskeard which is at right angles to the main line

I’m sure it’s not a spoiler to disclose this early on that all the Devon and Cornwall branch lines appear in my Hundred Best Train Journeys, and it won’t come as a surprise that leading the pack is the delightfully quirky and scenic Looe Valley Line. What other line begins with the train heading in a northerly direction to journey south, travelling in a full 360 degree large circle (clockwise), downhill, for about 5 minutes (passing under the main line) before ending up pointing northwards again; only to top this manoeuvre off on only two of the twelve journeys a day by continuing a short distance further northwards to call at the rarely used station of Coombe Junction Halt. Oh, and then the train guard/conductor jumps down from the train and manually resets the points so the train can head south again. Only in Cornwall; only in Britain!

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Not only all that, but the train then follows the course of the lovely East Looe River passing three more delightfully named request stations: St Keyne Wishing Well Halt, Causeland and Sandplace until the river gradually widens until the West Looe River joins almost opposite the station terminus at Looe. You simply haven’t been to Cornwall unless you’ve fully explored the lovely Looe Valley Line.

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15  Plymouth – Gunnislake

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This Devon branch line, the Tamar Line, may not have as many quirks as Liskeard-Looe, although it also passes under a superb viaduct carrying the main line and has a reverse manoeuvre along the way (at the wonderful Bere Alston – where the line once continued to Tavistock and Okehampton, and who knows, the pipe dream of reinstatement may one day come true) but for me it has a well deserved fifteenth place in this list for the wonderful views over the Rivers Tamar and Tavy, as the line twists and turns pointing east, then west, then north and repeat (many times) up the valley to Gunnislake.

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Bere Ferrers

Both Gunnislake and Calstock stations are also served by Plymouth Citybus route 79 offering a great view of the railway line crossing the River Tamar at Calstock. Bere Ferrers is also a wonderful station to explore with a heritage centre and adjacent vintage train.

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The viaduct carrying the Tamar Line over the River Tamar at Calstock

16  Lancaster – Barrow-in-Furness – Carlisle

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Are they paintings? No, they’re windows.

For me the Cumbrian Coast Line has many similar characteristics to the Cambrian Coast Line (at No 10): hugging the coastline with glorious views out to sea and wonderful mountain scenery inland.

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The infamous clock at the infamous Carnforth

Within a few minutes of setting off from Lancaster you arrive at the infamous Carnforth station which is definitely worth exploring for a Brief Encounter before hopping back on the next train as it leaves the main West Coast Line for the coast.

Skirting round the western edge of the Lake District on the Cumbrian Coast Line is a wonderful way to spend three and three quarters hours of your life; you certainly won’t regret it.

Even before reaching Barrow-in-Furness the views over Morecambe Bay are a tasty aperitif for what’s to follow as the train passes over the 528 yard low level Arnside Viaduct over the sands ….. then cruises into the wonderful Grange-over-Sands station with its window views over the sands …. then continuing round what is almost a 360 degree loop to serve Barrow-in-Furness …. then heading north along the coast …. but not before another fifteen mile ride around Duddon Sands …. then to Ravenglass which is a lovely stop off to ride the spectacular Ravenglass and Eskdale narrow gauge railway …. and then of course there’s the infamous Sellafield a few miles north with its barbed wire and security fences making it clear you’re not welcome unless you work there, which many local people do, as busy trains heading north from there at shift change times testify.

Pick your journey carefully as some entail connections in Barrow-in-Furness and some offer the opportunity to ride behind a Class 37 or Class 68 loco in old coaching stock for a real nostalgic ride back in time.

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A Class 37 passes over a low bridge at Ravenglass

17  Newcastle – Edinburgh

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Sun rising over the east coast as the 0540 from Edinburgh heads south

Whatever else, make sure you’re sitting on the coastal side when making this journey. Superb glimpses of the coastline tease you as you journey north until the train approaches Berwick-upon-Tweed where the full magnificence of its spectacular viaduct and crossing the Tweed on the Royal Border Bridge is a sight to behold, as is the sight of the original road bridge (Bridge End). After that, many welcome glimpses of the coast become more frequent as you head north towards Dunbar and Scotland.

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Looking east to Berwick-upon-Tweed from the viaduct

My favourite journey on this line is the first early morning southbound departure from Edinburgh to Kings Cross which leaves as early as 0540. But it’s well worth getting up early for; uniquely the train only calls at Newcastle making the 393 mile journey to London in precisely 4 hours (averaging 98 mph) and on a summer’s morning you see the sun rising in the east over the coast as breakfast is served and you head down to Newcastle – bliss.

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18  Llandudno – Blaenau Ffestiniog

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Betws-y-Coed

Another stunner of a Welsh line; and another with only six journeys a day but well worth planning an itinerary around. The line follows the course of the River Conwy southwards as far as Betws-y-Coed from where it heads west along the River LLedr but be prepared for a complete change in scenery once the train nears Blaenau Ffestiniog and emerges from the 2 mile long Ffestiniog tunnel. You arrive in slate country and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else on the rail network.

At Blaenau Ffestiniog there are cross platform connections with the Ffestiniog Heritage Railway which is well worth a trip as are the bus routes which run up and down either side of the Conwy Valley between Llandudno and Betws-y-Coed. Betws-y-Coed is also worth a stop off to explore including the miniature railway alongside the station.

19  Sheffield – Penistone – Huddersfield

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A Pacer arrives at Penistone

We’re talking serious South Yorkshire scenery here; until you slip into West Yorkshire, then you’re talking serious West Yorkshire scenery. When I travel along this line in addition to admiring the scenery, I often wonder if many passengers notice the subtle change of branding and logos between the stations east and south of Penistone (South Yorkshire) and west and north from Denby Dale and on to Huddersfield (West Yorkshire). As often as not, it’s been a Pacer when I’ve made this journey adding that unique charm only a Pacer can provide as it trundles along with the Peaks and Moors in the distance on the left hand side heading Huddersfield bound.

20  St Erth – St Ives

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A busy St Ives station

Back to Cornwall for this short five mile branch line, which gets overrun with passengers in the summer thanks to sensible traffic management arrangements which keeps cars out of St Ives and instead enforces parking at the Park & Ride site at Lelant Saltings the first station after St Erth.

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It’s another journey where it’s essential to sit (if you can find a seat in the busy summer months) on the coastal side (that’s the offside as the train leaves St Erth) for maximum sea views as the train scurries along to St Ives, where there’s only the most basic platform as a terminus. Don’t forget to walk up the hill to the bus station where there’s one of Britain’s most scenic bus turning areas, and maybe take an open top bus all the way round the coast via Lands End to Penzance, or if you’re short of time take the quick way via St Erth and Crowlas.

21  Edinburgh – Aberdeen

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Waking up and looking out of the window on the Caledonian Sleeper wending its way towards Aberdeen as the sun rises

We’ve already enjoyed the first past of this route as far as Ladybank on the Inverness journey along the Highland Line (No 4 in the Hundred Best Train Journeys) but now we’re keeping to the east coast as we head to Aberdeen to enjoy the fantastic journey over the Tay Bridge (a spine chilling moment whenever I cross and recall reading about the terrible  1879 disaster) and take in the lovely city of Dundee and on to Montrose and Stonehaven before arriving at Aberdeen.

22  Oxford – Worcester – Hereford

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The somewhat large station at Hereford

This line always intrigues me as it’s neither a main line or a branch line. It’s a wonderful hybrid which despite some track doubling, still has potential delay inducing single track sections as well as delightfully named stations including Ascott-under-Wychwood, Moreton-in-Marsh and Honeybourne where there’s a line off to serve the MoD depot at Long Marston and who knows, maybe one day the reinstatement of the long lost connection to Stratford-on-Avon, which really would make for a joined up railway.

The journey continues through both Worcester’s stations (the delightful Shrub Hill, with all it’s charm and old style signals, and also Foregate Street) before continuing through more rich English countryside via Great Malvern and Ledbury before terminating at the lovely market town of Hereford.

23  Swindon – Cheltenham

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The once proud offices of British Rail’s Western Region hiding the start of the scenic Swindon to Cheltenham line from the station behind

There are only three stations along this beautiful line – Kemble, Stroud and Stonehouse – and each has a character of its own and the scenery, especially to the north of the line, is another example of Englishness at its most countrified which is a good enough reason for its placing here in the list.

24  Westbury – Bath Spa

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Westbury’s a lovely interchange station in its own right, and surprisingly busy for the size of town as five rail lines converge and a freight marshalling yard is nearby; but it’s the section of line after Trowbridge towards Bath Spa which always brings me joy as it follows the gorgeous River Avon as well as the parallel Kennet and Avon Canal. and serves the amazingly well looked after stations at Bradford-on-Avon, Avoncliff and Freshford. The views are absolutely stunning. I’ve caught the one morning GWR operated train from Brighton which wends its way all along the coast to Southampton then inland via Salisbury, Westbury to Bath Spa/Bristol (a three and a half hour marathon) just for the fifteen or so minute delight of this section of track.

25  Exeter – Barnstaple (and Okehampton)

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Another Devonshire branch line delight, with wonderful scenery and a real treat to arrive at Barnstaple station with its retro signage and heritage atmosphere.

I’ve cheated and added the spur from Crediton to Okehampton to this entry – it only runs just a few journeys on Summer Sundays and uses the same tracks from Exeter as far as Crediton, and to be honest you don’t see much as the hedges and trees either side of the single track to Okehampton itself are thick and mature, but Okehampton station even tops Barnstaple for retro delight (and a connection to the Dartmoor heritage railway).

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Okehampton with the Dartmoor Railway using the platform on the left
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Okehampton can get very busy when the GWR train arrives

The one intermediate stop at Samford Courtney wins the prize for Britain’s most basic station with absolutely no facilities at all, save for a locked gate which the train guard on the first train of the day unlocks.

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Back to the Barnstaple branch and just saying how lovely the Devon scenery is – along the whole journey – count the number of times the track crosses the lovely River Taw – bet you lose count!

26  Glasgow – Wemyss Bay (and Gourock)

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Wemyss Bay

This train journey enjoys such a high entry for one simple reason: Wemyss Bay station. It has to be the most delightful station across the whole network. Stunningly attractive with magnificently designed curves and circles and not a straight line or corner to be seen. I’ve been a few times now, and love it more every visit. I also like the quirkiness of another station along the line called IBM. What at one time was a thriving industrial area owned by said technology company is now a barren wasteland with ghostly empty buildings, and as I found, when exploring the area, entails quite a circuitous and lonely route for pedestrians down to the main A78 road to Greenock for the bus.

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Another addition to this entry is the short six mile stretch of line heading further west, past the junction where the Wemyss Bay line heads south at Port Glasgow, continuing to the terminus at Gourock along the Firth of Clyde. It has such interesting station names including Bogston, Cartsdyke and Fort Matilda and a lovely view of the Clyde.

27  Eastbourne – Ashford International

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Class 171 trains pass at Rye before the single track section ahead towards Ore

Not as famous as the Dawlish Wall, nor the Cambrian or Cumbrian coastal lines, but nevertheless this lovely East Sussex coastal line offers wonderful views of the English Channel and the south coast’s characteristic beach huts and fishing huts as the train passes from Pevensey Bay and Normans Bay, through Cooden Beach to the massively long platforms at Bexhill and then the quirky St Leonards Warrier Square located between Bopeep Tunnel (lovely name) and Hastings Tunnel (each almost a mile in length). After Hastings and Ore, there’s the wonderfully dense wooded section of single track line with the short platformed, isolated, and little used stations of Three Oaks and Doleham before arriving at Winchelsea and Rye (well worth a stop off and explore). After that the scenery changes once again as the train crosses the Romney Marsh to the characterless and much expanded terminus at Ashford.

This line has two-car Class 171 diesel trains which, aside from the Uckfield line, are unusual for Kent and Sussex. It’s unsurprising that Doleham sees so few passengers (it’s East Sussex’s least used station) as on a Saturday only the first and last trains in both directions make a stop – so you have to leave on the 0558 to Ashford and can only return on the 2357 arrival back making for quite a long day out! (Mondays to Fridays offers more sensible departures to Hastings at 0755 and 0917 with a 1718 arrival back.)

28  Redhill – Guildford

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It’s for the North Downs. They’re beautiful. They really are. Views from both sides of the train are worth clocking but I always prefer the north side and get those full on views through Dorking and Gomshall – which incidentally has one of the most extensive ramped footbridges I’ve ever seen anywhere on the network.

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29  Paddock Wood – Maidstone

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This is another train journey alongside a delightfully scenic river. In this case the River Medway as it wends its way north towards Maidstone (and eventually to Sheerness and the sea). The train provides an hourly service from Tonbridge to Strood but it’s the twenty minute ride alongside the Medway and passing through stations Beltring, Yalding, Wateringbury and East Fairleigh which is the really stunning section of track (sit on the right hand side heading north for best views).

30  Derby – Matlock

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Book-ending the top thirty is the delightful journey from Derby into the wonderful Peak District town of Matlock. I love the first station after leaving the main line at Ambergate, called Whatstandwell, not only for its quirky name but because it’s the closest station to the Tramway museum at nearby Crich.

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The line follows the Derwent Valley along with the A6 and river to Cromford before a tunnel brings you to Matlock Bath (famous for the Heights of Abraham) and Matlock itself, where there are connections to the Peak Rail Heritage Line further up the valley, or to the lovely TransPeak bus route on to Bakewell and Buxton to connect back to the rail network.

Watch out for Part 3 of my Hundred Best Train Journeys (31-60) next month.

Roger French

My Hundred Best Train Journeys 1

Sunday 11th November 2018   Part 1 of 4.

This started out as my top ten favourite train journeys but I quickly realised I couldn’t possibly do justice to all the many fantastic rail lines across Britain by being so limited. It quickly grew to a top twenty, then thirty as favourites easily clicked away on the keyboard. It wasn’t long before I’d passed fifty, and so it seemed a natural progression to carry on until the hundred milestone was reached. I’ll post the list in four bite-sized chunks over the next few weeks. Here’s that original top ten, to kick things off.

1.  Glasgow – Fort William – Mallaig

It won’t come as a surprise that Scotland features heavily in the top slots – five of my top six train journeys are north of the border, with many more entries throughout the list.

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The famous Horseshoe Curve between Upper Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy is a delight – this photo was taken from the train wending its way around the curve.

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The West Highland Line running between Glasgow and Fort William and on to Mallaig is the obvious and very worthy winner of the coveted top spot; not only is it recognised as Britain’s most scenic rail line by most commentators, but it’s renowned around the world. There’s nothing better than taking the Caledonian Sleeper from the hustle and bustle of Euston and waking up the next morning to the beauty and remoteness of Rannoch Moor as the train trundles alongside moors, lochs and mountains to Fort William.

This can be particularly evocative in the winter as the sun rises above snow covered ground and deers scamper in the distance. Another favourite journey is the early departure from Mallaig at 0603 during the summer months. You often have a whole carriage to yourself to enjoy the spectacular scenery of this section of the line before a handful of early commuters board at stations closer to Fort William.

This truly has to be top of any Bucket List of train journeys.

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Looking back on the famous Glenfinnan on an empty early journey from Mallaig

2.  Inverness – Kyle of Lochalsh

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It’s a close run thing for the top spot with the Kyle of Lochalsh line a very strong runner up. In fact whenever I take a ride on this line I always end up having a debate with myself whether actually this line surpasses the West Highland Line; but then when I have another trip out to Fort William I know, that Kyle’s place is definitely second. It has its own delightful characteritics including some gorgeous scenery and quirky stations.

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3.  Glasgow – Oban

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Many trains from Fort WIlliam and Oban join and split at the brilliant Crianlarich station for the journey to Glasgow

Now some might say, this is a cheat as much of the line (Glasgow – Crianlarich) is the same as the Fort WIlliam/Mallaig line; indeed many trains split or join together at Crianlarich. But, it’s my list, and I decide the rules, and I reckon there’s enough beauty to behold on the line to Oban north of Crianlarich to justify a third place entry in its own right. Indeed, it was the very first train ride I made in Scotland, way back in the early 1970s taking holidays as a teenager on a remote island off Mull. This necessitated what was then a loco hauled train to Oban which included a refreshment stop of about 15 or 20 minutes at Crianlarich so passengers could use the platform tea room and toilets. That’s why it always has a special place in my memory.

4.  Edinburgh – Inverness

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I specify Edinburgh, but it could equally be the train from or to Glasgow, although the latter struggles to live up to the spectacular coastal views and the Forth Rail Bridge experience between Edinburgh and Perth. It’s the section of line north of Perth to Inverness which gives this train journey a well deserved fourth place as it takes in the spectacular scenery through the Cairngorms National Park. I really can’t wait to ride the refurbished HSTs ScotRail are soon introducing on this line (and others). It’s also another great journey to take on the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston and wake up through the Highlands.

5.  Leeds – Carlisle

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My top rail line in England just has to be the Settle-Carlisle. Not only is the scenery just superb, the Ribblehead Viaduct a must-see, the stations kept in wonderful heritage conditions but from many of the stations there are wonderful bus journeys to take too. Garsdale has links to Hawes; Dent has a community bus to Kendal which is just totally stunning; Cumbria Classic Coaches run heritage journeys from Kirkby Stephen to a range of destinations in the summer; and there are also great connections at Settle, Skipton and Keighley. I even made a trip to and from Appleby this summer.

6.  Inverness – Wick

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You need to sit on the coastal side of the train for maximum scenic enjoyment of the Far North Line, but beware, unlike the Stagecoach X99 bus route, which hugs the coast the whole way, the train diverts inland for many miles offering alternative views. It’s not a journey for those in a hurry either which adds to its charm as you head towards the northernmost point on the rail network. I often use the line to and from Lairg where there are quirky bus route connections on to the north west tip of Scotland at Durness, as well as Tongue.

7.  Lancaster – Glasgow

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You may find it odd that the main lines out of London, which form the backbone of Britain’s rail network (East Coast; West Coast; Midland Mainline; Great Western,Great Eastern and north out of Marylebone), don’t feature in my Hundred Best Train Journeys – well, certainly not the southern sections – this is probably because they become all too familiar as I find myself travelling along these tracks so many times every year; but I think it’s also because the scenery towards the northern ends far eclipses anything ‘down south’ and none more so than on the West Coast Line which is why this takes a very deserved seventh place in my list. The Lake District, Shap, the northern most Pennines all pass by as the railtracks criss-cross the M6 on it’s spine route linking Scotland with the south. My eyes are glued to the window the whole journey until we reach the outskirts of Glasgow.

8.  Middlesbrough – Whitby

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Danby

I always try and include this journey in my itneraries at least once, if not twice, every year as I never tire of the wonderful views it offers across the North Yorkshire Moors and along the River Esk which the line follows for many miles. It’s another line which offers some great bus connections, not least Arriva’s X93, which also runs between Middlesbrough and Whitby before providing a handy connection on to Scarborough, and Transdev Blazefield’s Coastliner 840 from Whitby via Goathland (of Heartbeat fame) to Malton and York/Leeds – voted Britain’s Most Secnic Bus Route earlier this year. I’ve also connected with the wonderful Moorsbus weekend network by using Danby station on the line which was fun, and of course tracks are shared between Grosmont andf Whitby with the wonderful North Yorks Moors heritage railway.

9.  Exeter – Penzance

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And not just for the Dawlish Wall moment either. I love the build up to that infamous section of track as the train leaves Exeter and hugs the River Exe spotting the ferry from Starcross which crosses the river to Exmouth and the ice cream stall at Dawlish Warren and then you know the Wall is ahead. The delights keep on coming as the journey continues to Plymouth, the Royal Albert Bridge with the spectacular views down to the harbours on both sides of the River Tamar and then into Cornwall; a quick look at Bodmin Parkway to see if the heritage rail line is running (having done the same at Totnes); the rolling Cornish scenery; the wonderful view of Truro Cathedral. It’s a superb ride, and there’s nothing better than a comfortable leather First Class seat in a GWR HST too…..for just a little while longer!

10  Machynlleth – Pwllheli

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Preparing to leave Machynlleth for the journey along the Cambrian coast to Phllheli

My first (of many) best rail lines in Wales just makes it into the top ten, which is pleasing, as it is a fantastic journey to make. It starts way back in Birmingham and runs via Shrewsbury on a pleasant enough route, as is the leg down to Aberystwyth, but the Cambrian Coast line proper really only starts at Machynlleth as it unsurprisngly hugs all along the Cambrian Coast up to Pwllheli. In fact parts of the line even surpass the Dawlish Wall, and I’m wondering whether I should swap the order around now I think more about it. This line, after all, has a number of quirky request stops which I’ve used a few of, as well as connections to heritage trains at Tywyn, Fairbourne and Porthmadog and the Traws Cymru T3 bus across to Wrexham from Barmouth.

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The quirky Dovey Junction where there’s limited access and trains meet from the Aberystwyth and Pwllheli branches

Watch out for My Hundred Best Train Journeys – numbers 11 – 30 to follow in Part 2.

Roger French

TramTrains arrive … at last.

Thursday 25th October 2018

It’s taken around ten years to deliver at over four times the original budgeted cost but today passengers could finally get on what seemed like a ‘train’ at Rotherham Central station and get off what had turned into a ‘tram’ during the journey right in the heart of Sheffield’s city centre outside the Cathedral. Yes, the £75 million TramTrain trial is underway at last.

If today’s passenger count is anything to go by, even setting aside first day intrigued locals and lots of camera wielding enthusiasts, demand will soon be ‘exceeding expectations’ and I can foresee the pilot being declared a rip roaring success. After all, who wouldn’t be attracted to use a service offering good value fares which serves the Region’s vast shopping mall at Meadowhall (albeit via the side entrance) and whisks you directly into the city centre.

Passengers ready to board a TramTrain at Rotherham Central

But this pilot has come at a huge cost and inevitably parallel bus routes and the traditional train service between Rotherham and Sheffield will suffer a consequential drop in passengers which may well have implications for future service levels.

A Northern Trains Pacer passes the new Rotherham Central TramTrain platforms

The original idea of running a TramTrain began in 2008 when the DfT thought the Penistone line would be an ideal test bed. However those who know a bit more about Yorkshire’s train tracks than London based civil servants soon pointed out connecting that line to the existing Sheffield Supertram tracks (the whole point of the trial) was a complete non starter so in 2009 DfT officials switched attention to a little used freight line running adjacent to the tram tracks from Sheffield towards Meadowhall and which could fairly easily be connected up to enable the sparkly new TramTrains to switch tracks and head on to Rotherham where the freight line connects to the regular passenger line.

The guys at Network Rail reckoned £15 million should do the trick with a 2015 completion date. As we now know, thanks to a Transport Select Committee Inquiry, things didn’t quite work out as planned and £75 million and nine years later we finally have the pilot underway with the fleet of TramTrains, which arrived ready for service at the end of 2015, finally being used for their intended purpose.

The connecting piece of track lies under the famous Tinsley viaduct on the M1. A short stretch is single track and TramTrains pause as they leave or join the tram tracks presumably to let train monitoring systems know they’re entering or leaving Network Rail’s sphere of influence rather than the ‘line of sight’ basic form of tram operation in Sheffield. On my southbound journeys this handover pause took as much as forty seconds but was slightly shorter in the northbound direction.

Heading south leaving the freight line on to the new connecting spur

The upshot of this is that signs and apps showing departures from Rotherham Central can’t pick up expected TramTrain arrivals until too late – with ‘on time’ indicators switching at the last minute to eight minutes late in one case today. Furthermore the departure screens at tram stops are not yet programmed to show TramTrains at all which inevitably led to much confusion with passengers thinking they were boarding a Meadowhall bound tram only to find themselves in Rotherham. It’s not easy for an average passenger to tell the difference between a tram and a TramTrain.

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Departure screens at Rotherham Central stop showing approaching TramTrains prematurely
TramTrains don’t yet appear on tram stop departure signs

This is not helped by an uneven headway on the TramTrain timetable with two of its three journeys an hour scheduled just one minute ahead of the parallel Yellow tram route to Meadowhall thereby following each other nose to tail for the entire journey from Cathedral to the Tinsley junction.

This Meadowhall bound tram….
… followed my TramTrain…
…all the way to Tinsley (by Meadowhall) as scheduled

I can see the difficulty in pathing three TramTrains per hour alongside the five Yellow line trams to/from Meadowhall to say nothing of the four trains an hour at Rotherham Central but this duplication is unfortunate as is the consequential uneven TramTrain frequency running at 01, 27, 39 mins past each hour (Yellow trams at 04, 16, 28, 40, 52) from Cathedral.

Still, it is a pilot and I guess it’s more about how the different technologies and interfaces can work together but this aspect is a bit of a disappointment for passengers.

The problem will also be in delivering a reliable and robust service as not only are there constraints of fitting trams, trains and TramTrains together but the end to end running time at 26 minutes from Cathedral to Rotherham Parkgate (the new terminus three minutes north of Rotherham Central station) makes for a very tight turnaround cycle in one hour.

Indeed on my trips today, one northbound TramTrain got held on the freight line while we waited for an eight minute late running southbound Northern Rail train bound for Sheffield to cross our path and two hours later I caught this same TramTrain to Parkgate which was by then running eight minutes late itself causing it to be out of sync with both the Meadowhall trams and Northern Rail train paths.

Departures on the National Rail app wrongly show TrainTram departing platform 2

Interestingly when we got back to Cathedral a fresh TramTrain had been slotted into the schedule to provide an on-time departure with our late running one going dead to depot.

TramTrain passengers at Rotherham Central need to allow time for a lengthy walk along the full length of the platforms as the new dedicated TramTrain Platforms 3 and 4 (with low height boarding/alighting) are in fact extensions of existing Platforms 1 and 2 but are unfortunately sited at the far southern end away from the station’s northern entrance and exit. Sadly the £75 million didn’t stretch to more than a standard small shelter on the platform extensions either which look rather inadequate compared to the impressive full length canopies on the main platforms.

Looking south at Rotherham Central towards the platform extensions
The lower level platforms used by TramTrains
A Pacer admirably demonstrates the height challenge

Oops; a wrong ‘tram’ pictogram for Platform 1 on this sign!

The facilities at the TramTrain’s northern terminus, Rotherham Parkgate, can also only be described as basic, especially as TramTrains are only scheduled to wait there for 12 minutes in any hour leaving passengers with limited waiting facilities if arriving at other times from the adjacent rather bleak warehouse style retail outlets.

You can’t help thinking most of the £75 million has gone on technical stuff like making sure the TramTrains can cope with 750V DC overhead wires as well as the higher powered 25kV AC for main line running (something the Transport Select Committee picked up as being a complete waste after the Secretary of State cancelled the plans for Sheffield electrification in July 2017 having included it in the original 2012 plans) rather than passenger comforts.

It was good to see high profile promotion of the new service at tram stops and at Rotherham Central. Automatic announcements were also being made there for next TramTrain departures too, even if they disappeared off the departure screens prematurely.

Impressively there were also leaflets giving details of timetables, fares and tickets on every TramTrain and plenty of staff were around to help.

This being South Yorkshire there are some great ticket bargains including a £4 day ticket covering travel on all tram routes including TramTrains. This won’t help the bus services prosper, but is possibly only an introductory arrangement.

I’m always pleased to see new public transport initiatives and innovations and in that context TramTrain is very welcome. I’m sure lessons will be learned and be particularly pertinent for the upcoming plans for similar arrangements in the Cardiff valleys.

But unlike Snap, Arriva Click, Pick Me Up and other private sector innovations this initiative has sucked up an awful lot of public money. And what’s more the DfT’s most senior civil servant recommended the plug be pulled on the whole project in 2015 only to be overruled by Minister Paul Maynard despite the Transport Select Committee observing neither the DfT nor Network Rail had quantified any benefits from the project.

I also can’t help comparing the benefits of bringing relatively speaking a few Rotherham folk into Sheffield by a slightly different route than by existing bus or train for £75 million with what’s been achieved in Belfast for thousands of passengers right across the city with the Glider bus based transit scheme for £90 million.

Against the background of no prescribed benefits one wonders how TramTrain will be judged a success but I’m sure it won’t be long before it is indeed deemed a great success.

Roger French 25th October 2018

Seven steps to simpler rail fares. Sorted.

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Tomorrow is the last day to give feedback for the Rail Delivery Group’s review of rail fares with the aim of making them much easier to understand. They’ve produced a simple clickable online survey which, if you don’t make any additional comments or suggestions, only takes around five minutes to complete, so is well worth a whirl.

There are questions on things like the merits of basing fares on distance, time of day/day of week, level of service, time of booking, method of booking, flexibility of travel, split ticketing, rewarding loyalty, discounts for railcards as well as methods of payment.

The RDG review pledges any changes will be financially neutral so for every attractive outcome offering lower ticket prices there’ll be others paying more for their journey. I can’t see the latter going down well with the rail industry’s political masters nor the commentators and media who like to find fault. Which group of passengers will willingly pay more for the sake of achieving a more logical, easier to understand fares system?

And in that context here are my seven suggestions for simplification:

1. Do away with cheaper return tickets and just have single journey tickets.

In some cases cheap off peak returns are only 10p more than the single which is particularly anomalous. Instead maintain the ability to buy a return (for convenience) but it’ll simply cost double the single. In averaging this all out, most people already make return journeys so this won’t have a huge impact on what people pay; it will mean cheaper single journey prices and modestly more expensive return prices but still achieving the same overall revenue take. While we’re at it, the summation of single leg journey prices mustn’t be less than the price charged from end to end to avoid split ticket anomalies.

2. Do away with Advanced Purchase discounted tickets.

In many cases, for Standard Class travel, they don’t offer the savings they first appear to once the cost of a return journey is taken into account. An off peak return is very often just as cheap as two Adanced Purchase tickets for the separate journey legs. Furthmore, off peak returns offer complete flexibility on journey travel times.

3. Do away with peak/off peak price differentials; charge the same ticket price irrespective of travel time.

Bit radical, I know, but season ticket holders travelling five days a week already pay something close to five times the off peak fare anyway. They always reckon they’re hard done by, but actually the perceived high cost of travel is because they pay in bulk and make more journeys. An occasional traveller pays much more per journey as they pay full whack in the morning peak with an Anytime Ticket. This change will obviously mean off peak ticket prices rising relative to peak prices but see my suggestion number 7.

4. Do away with cheaper tickets restricted to one particular train company.

All tickets should be available on any train running between the origin and destination and used by ‘any permitted’ route between those points. Which brings me to…

5. Make it much more clear what the ‘Any Permitted’ route options are for tickets.

I’m pretty sure only the renowned ticketing expert Barry Doe knows what can be done and what can’t; the rules are so complex and almost impregnable. It can’t be beyond the wit of the fares experts at the RDG to produce a nice interactive online map of the rail network where you can click on your origin and destination stations and up comes all the route options possible on the map. I think people would be amazed what flexibility is available and when combined with the ability to break your journey at any station on route (something many passengers are also unaware is possible) opens up many flexible travel options.

6. Do away with seat reservations.

Increasingly I see passengers ignoring their allocated seat and instead opting for a preferred better placed unreserved seat especially when unreserved (or less busy) coaches are marked up on platform indicator boards. Passengers like the ability to choose a preferred seat once they actually arrive on the train, but this leads to chaotic scenes where reserved seats are foregone as passengers rush to bag unreserved seats. I’m also increasingly finding electronic seat reservations systems are unreliable leading to more confusion as passengers board along the route expecting to find their reserved seat.

7. My final suggestion, having swept away cheaper returns, cheaper advanced purchases, cheaper peak tickets and reservations in favour of a simple easy-to-understand one price system…….is to add a bit of complexity back, but using a promotional marketing approach by significantly expanding the range of Railcards.

7a Make Railcards available for any adult without the need to be of a certain age, have a partner or children, or work for the armed forces. Yes, let anyone buy a Railcard. A sort of Nationwide Network Card. The range will include paying something like £100 up front for a year which would offer say, a 50% discount off peak on the new standard single fare. Or another could be £40 offering a third discount. I’m not privy to know the revenue streams from different tickets now, so it’s difficult to know what the price band/discounts need to be, but I hope you get the idea behind the principle of establishing say three or four Railcards of this kind to appeal to different market segments. You’d design Railcards to appeal to regular users as well as occasional users and the discount would encourage travel by offering a good value price. Offers could also be made on the upfront price of the initial Railcard purchase to encourage take-up and discounts given for longer duration Railcards, as now, say for a three year validity.

7b Existing Railcards would continue and with some extensions of validity. For example Senior Railcard discounts should be available at any time, including during the morning peak in the London and South East area (ok, I need to declare a slight vested interest here; ok, a big-time vested interest here – I live in London and the South East and I use a Senior Railcard; a lot). Journeys wholly within London and the South East (as per the Network Railcard area – which itself is nonsensical to have one Railcard’s restrictions based on another’s area) are not discounted until after 9am presumably on the logic of not giving a discount at a busy time of day with packed out trains. But that doesn’t stand much scrutiny as Londoners with a Freedom Ticket (available to over 60s) giving completely free travel can use the overcrowded Underground at any time as can Senior Railcard holders travel at a discount on packed out morning peak trains in other conurbations around the country and finally as justification, Senior Railcard holders can already travel across the L&SE area border at morning peak times – e.g. there’s no time restriction on discounts for a pre 9am journey from Brighton to Ipswich (Ipswich is outside the L&SE area) but discounted travel is not possible pre 9am for Brighton to Colchester (Colchester is within the L&SE area). Again this is something many passengers don’t know about, indeed my recent experience has been even some ticket office staff don’t know about it either and wrongly assume a Senior Railcard means no discounts before 9am. Not true.

So that’s it, a much simplified ticket system with some attractive incentives through a new range of Railcards. Sorted.

If you’ve got ideas or comments about rail fares be sure to click here by close of play tomorrow.

Roger French           9th September 2018

72% increase in train fares from Saturday

That’s a headline to grab your attention for sure. And it’s true; for those of us on the Brighton line and travel off peak into Victoria. GTR have announced from Saturday 1st September it’s back to the bad old days with ticket restrictions reinstated around what trains we can use particular tickets on.

Looking at the range of ticket options available you’d never know all the trains are run by the same franchise, GoVia Thameslink Railway, which in turn is micro-managed by the Department for Transport where all the fares revenue ends up. The poster explaining the reintroduction of restrictions even has a helpful matrix so you can work out which trains to catch and which to miss if you want to save a bob or two.

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From my local station, Hassocks, the off peak ‘Thameslink only’ day return to ‘London Terminals’ (includes travel to either Victoria or London Bridge and stations through to City Thameslink) has been costing £14.80. Following May’s timetable meltdown all restrictions were lifted with ‘Thameslink only’ tickets valid on both Southern and Gatwick Express trains. But from Saturday if you’re travelling to Victoria (where Thameslink trains don’t venture) or you want the flexibility of using any train on the Brighton line you’ll need an ‘Any Permitted’ off peak ticket at a whopping 72.3% higher price of £25.50.

Other increases include 30.7% for the off peak one-day Travelcard rising from £22.80 (‘Thameslink only’) to £29.90 (‘Any Permitted’) while a peak hour return rises 20.7% from £37.60 (‘Thameslink only’) to £45.40 (‘Any Permitted’). The peak hour Travelcard rises 27% from £41.90 to £53.30.

You might well wonder why on earth these huge differentials continue when all the trains are run by the same company. In other parts of the country cheaper ‘one company only’ fares are available where two or more different train companies run on the same tracks. For example on the West Coast Main Line a ‘West Midlands Trains only’ ticket is usually cheaper than a ‘Virgin Trains only’ ticket which in turn are both cheaper than an ‘Any Permitted’ ticket. Similar arrangements apply on the East Coast line.

Train companies like having their own exclusive tickets as they get to keep all the revenue whereas they have to share ‘Any Permitted’ ticket revenue with all the other train operators who might offer alternative journey possibilities. 100% of a cheaper ticket is usually better for profits than a share of a higher priced ticket. And passengers not bothered about flexibility end up with a reduced travel price; so it’s a win-win.

But in GTR land, all the trains are operated by the same franchise operator, and all the ticket income goes to the DfT, so why on earth are these differentials being perpetuated? The cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option was introduced some years ago, ironically when GoVia ran the original Thameslink franchise and was in competition with Connex who ran the South Central franchise. To steal a march on Connex, particularly for the lucrative Gatwick Airport to London market (also contested by an independent Gatwick Express franchise) as well as the Brighton to London business, GoVia introduced cheaper tickets exclusively available on their own Thameslink trains. The same situation continued during the era when the tables were turned and GoVia ran Southern having lost the Thameslink franchise to First Group who renamed it First Capital Connect.

But now, it’s all in one ownership including Gatwick Express where the complete rip-off fare mentality fleecing tourists with higher fares for a less than premium ride is being reintroduced once again. How on earth DfT can justify charging £19.90 to travel on a red coloured train from Gatwick Airport to Victoria taking around 30 minutes (which could well have started its journey in Brighton where passengers don’t pay any extra) and a cheaper £16.20 to travel on a green coloured train taking around 30 minutes is beyond me, particularly when the green train has more comfortable seats. The differentials are even more stark in the off-peak if using a Pay-As-You-Go Oyster card when a journey on a green coloured train will cost just £8.30. It’s an absolute minefield for incoming visitors staring at ticket machine screens at Gatwick Airport trying to work through a myriad of complicated options. Not much of a welcome for sure.

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I reckon if DfT thought they could get away with it, they’d withdraw the cheaper ‘Thameslink only’ option on the Brighton line completely and make us all pay the higher ‘Any Permitted’ prices but in the climate of incompetence surrounding this whole franchise that would be a PR step too far. Thank goodness for small mercies like this.

 

 

Trying out the ‘One Arriva’ ticket in Rhyl

I’ve long thought bus and train owning Groups are missing a trick by not upselling travel in the way savvy retailers would (‘people who bought this also bought this’) so I was encouraged in May last year when Arriva announced they were putting matters right with an exciting modal integration project in North Wales.

Arriva has long been the largest bus operator along the North Wales coast and since 2003 has run the train franchise in Wales so there’s been plenty of scope for joined up initiatives to benefit passengers. It’s a pity this exciting initiative had to wait until the last full year of the franchise but hey-ho, like a GTR train, better late than never.

Whereas trains from the east only get as far as Bangor before heading over to Holyhead on Anglesey, Arriva’s buses continue to the popular tourist hotspot of Caernarfon. Route 5C is a busy four-bus-an-hour route and with no other public transport option available (other than a pricey taxi) unsurprisingly there are always lots of visitors getting off trains at Bangor seeking out the bus to continue their journey to Caernarfon.

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The interchange at Bangor leaves a lot to be desired. There are two bus stops conveniently right outside the station’s pedestrian exit, one of which is unused, but Caernarfon bound buses stay on the main road stopping around a corner unseen from the station as they climb up a steep hill. Passengers who eventually find where to go are greeted by a shoddy shelter, a duff real time sign that’s probably never worked and a confusing array of bus numbers worthy of a drawn out Bingo game adorning the worn bus stop flag on a narrow pavement. It’s crying out for investment and a revamp. My guess is it’s one of the busiest stops for train/bus interchange in North Wales.

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So I was a bit surprised to hear Arriva had chosen Rhyl for it’s integration trailblazer rather than Bangor. This decision no doubt influenced by Denbighshire County Council upgrading the five bay bus station immediately outside the train station offering a great opportunity for Arriva to join the bandwagon and show what can be done to make buses and trains seamlessly work together.

I was intrigued to visit this week, just over a year since the launch in May 2017, to see what’s occurring.

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As you get off westbound trains at Rhyl and cross the footbridge to the exit on the eastbound platform you’re met with an impressive plethora of posters explaining the route and frequencies of the six onward bus services from the bus station outside. Someone’s certainly been diligent at utilising every opportunity to catch your eye as you leave the station.

 

 

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And that’s not all. Impressively by the station exit there’s a leaflet rack dedicated to Arriva bus timetables while outside there are more posters including one for the ‘One Arriva’ ticket.

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Aside from the posters and leaflet rack the ‘One Arriva’ ticket seems to be the main integration initiative. It’s basically Plusbus but includes travel along the full length of the six Arriva bus routes from Rhyl station. It costs £4 whereas the smaller Plusbus area costs £2.60 (or just £1.70 with a Railcard). There’s a 7-day ‘One Arriva’ for just £11 (a great value 2.75 time’s the daily price) and an intriguing ‘Group of 5 people’ ticket valid after 0930 for just £10 (half price compared to buying individual tickets which would be £20) and a 7-day version of that for £50 (5 times the daily price so only a measly fiver saving compared to buying five individual 7-day tickets for £55).

 

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Massive Discounts on standard bus tickets? A standard single from Rhyl to Colwyn Bay is £3.90!

The thing is though, the two main bus routes from Rhyl station, the 11 to Prestatyn continuing on to Flint and Chester and the 12 to Llandudno pretty much parallel the train so most passengers would presumably stay on the train if they’re Prestatyn, Flint or Llandudno bound and in a Catch 22 classic they’d not be able to buy a ‘One Arriva’ ticket to travel on the same bus from those stations as the information implies it’s only valid from Rhyl.

Well, that’s if you can find any information about the ‘One Arriva’ ticket. Other than the aforementioned posters at Rhyl station you’ll be hard pressed to find anything about ‘One Arriva’ anywhere. There’s no mention of it at all on the Arriva Trains Wales website and it’s buried so deep in the Arriva Bus website, you have to be an extreme keyboard warrior to click through and find it. I eventually found the details shown here under the ‘Latest’ tab on the Wales region page where you’d have to know to scroll down two pages of the last fourteen month’s PR puff to find the launch announcement back in May 2017. There’s no mention of it under Tickets or anywhere else I could find; strange as I thought it was a ground breaking integration innovation!

Even more odd, no-one at Arriva Bus seems to know about ‘One Arriva’. I tried telephoning, live chatting and fares enquiries form filling to find out about it, but no-one could help me. But I’ll tell you more about these experiences another time, as they’re a classic in their own futility.

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When you eventually find the information you’re told you can “simply buy your ‘One Arriva’ ticket from your train conductor or from Rhyl station”. Now that’s strange as surely you’d want to buy the combined ‘One Arriva’ ticket at your origin station as you do Plusbus? With gateline barriers at many stations it’s not really practical to buy from the conductor so I tested the system by asking at Chester station (probably the largest Arriva Trains Wales station in the area) for a ‘One Arriva’ ticket to Rhyl. To be helpful I explained it included bus travel (I’m not that cruel) and impressively the very helpful staff there had heard of ‘One Arriva’ and could remember selling one “months ago” but inevitably for such a sales rarity had forgotten the relevant code the ticket machine computer needed to make a sale. I give them full credit for perseverance and helpfulness as after many unsuccessful attempts they were determined to see it through and thought it best to phone colleagues at Rhyl who were able to help and a £4 ticket was issued called ‘BUS DAY ROVER’ showing it as issued at Chester in addition to a standard train ticket to Rhyl.

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When I arrived at Rhyl, I’m pleased to report the driver of the 51 bus to Denbigh allowed me on without comment after an initial quizzical look at the ticket, presumably helped by the words ‘BUS’ and ‘DAY ROVER’. I don’t think either he or I, or probably anyone knows exactly how far a ‘One Arriva’ ticket could take me as the bus continues all the way to Wrexham as the 51 becomes an X51 at Denbigh, nor if I’d chosen to ride the 11 back towards Flint, whether I could have stayed on the bus through to Chester.

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The Council’s revamp of Rhyl bus station is welcome with some excellent maps and clear information displayed but attention to detail is sadly lacking, particularly keeping things up to date.

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It’s the same old story ad nauseam. Introduce something supposedly innovative in a blaze of hype, bask in the glory of favourable launch headlines and media stories then forget all about it. But the world doesn’t work like that. You have to keep on top of these things; nothing stands still. Yesterday’s hyperbole is today’s stale, unattractive initiative going distinctly off the boil for all to see. Someone like me comes along and it’s all too easy to find fault and criticise whereas continued effort at keeping the pot boiling would reap rich rewards.

Here are a few observations and suggestions:

1. An old architects drawing for the revamped bus station (probably used in the consultation) was still on display in a prominent position fourteen months on – it has numbered bays instead of lettered bays and buses now depart from different stands to the original plan. Take it down and replace with the helpful network route map, assuming that is up to date!

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2. One of Arriva’s routes – the 51 to Denbigh and on to Wrexham – is no longer branded as MAX but the branding appears on the departure information. Remove it. Confusingly the through journeys to Wrexham are operated by Sapphire branded double deckers and the short journeys by standard single decks! A complete brand mishmash.

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3. Keep Rhyl station regularly supplied with bus timetable leaflets for all Arriva bus routes (and the excellent Denbigh County Council produced comprehensive timetable book) and instruct staff based there to ensure the leaflet rack is topped up as required. The rack was bereft of leaflets when I visited sporting just one route, the local Rhyl town routes better known as the 83/83A/84/84A/85.

 

4. ‘One Arriva’ needs proper and sustained marketing all along the North Wales coast not just at Rhyl as the ticket could be used from any of the stations along the 11 and 12 bus routes from Flint to Llandudno as all the ticket states is ‘BUS DAY ROVER’ with no reference to Rhyl on it.

5. Indeed ‘One Arriva’ should be available at every station between Chester and Holyhead where there’s an Arriva bus passing by. The £4 price and sales message would then be much more compelling and attractive.

6. Drop the inconsistent ‘Group of 5’ pricing and have a more usual range of family ticket options including children which would be much more useful for the families who holiday in this area.

7. Have leaflets promoting it at every station along the North Wales coast and make information easy to access on websites for both Arriva Bus and Arriva Trains Wales.

8. Display posters at all stations about bus routes that serve them as per the Rhyl exemplar.

9. Install leaflet racks at every station with supplies of bus timetables as per Rhyl.

10. Put a lot of effort into improving the interchange at Bangor including routing the Caernarfon bound 5C journeys around the station building with much improved signage. This really is a priority.

Sadly none of this will happen and the Rhyl initiative will fizzle out. Firstly managers will observe ticket sales are far too low; not surprising with the lack of high profile promotion, lack of any information, staff unfamiliarity and it only involves one station – a drop in an ocean of possibilities. Secondly Arriva’s involvement in running trains in Wales ends in October as Keolis-Amey start their new franchise. A ‘One Arriva’ ticket suddenly becomes somewhat inappropriately named.

But as luck would have it there’s a ready made alternative already available. The North Wales Rover. It’s been around for some years quietly offering combined bus and train travel for various zonal areas across North Wales. The trouble is you need to be a ticket officianado to know about the options. They’re buried on the National Rail website page on Rangers and Rovers, and even then you have to interrogate a full alphabetical list of every Rover ticket in the country to find the one you want, but at least it does confirm it’s available on both trains and ‘most’ buses. Astonishingly availability on buses doesn’t get a mention at all on the Arriva Trains Wales website. Bizarrely for a bus and train company, you’d think the ticket was only for train passengers, yet one of its unique selling points is you can travel all over North Wales on buses too! Suffice to say there’s absolutely no mention of the ticket at all on the Arriva Bus website!

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Commendably the North Wales Rover is promoted in the excellent Conwy and Denbighshire timetable books I was pleased to recently acquire. And when I bought an all-zones North Wales ticket at Chester station the staff member issued it efficiently and confidentially. I asked if there was a leaflet available to confirm exactly which bus routes it was valid on, or perhaps which are excluded – all you’re told is ‘all trains and most bus routes’ – but sadly there’s no leaflet and nothing to reassure wary passengers.

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I’ve long learned most bus drivers are as unsure as you whether tickets like this are valid so if you present it with a false assured air of confidence you’ll easily win the battle of ticket acceptance wariness. But what a way to run a railway and bus network! Come on; be bold and just state ‘Valid On All Trains And ALL Buses’. And guess what, if you really really promote it properly it just might actually become a big seller and grow the market. After all, Wales could do with a bit of that!

Roger French       26th July 2018

As a postscript, I was intrigued to come across this item in Arriva Group’s update of all that’s happening around the Group.

“A seamless service”; the writer has obviously not tried to buy a ‘One Arriva’ ticket!

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10 reasons to like Devon

It’s always a pleasure to spend a few days in Devon. Superb coastlines, rolling rural scenery, two great cities, many attractive towns and lots of delightful villages. Best of all it has an excellent network of well run bus and train services making it very easy to get around. Here are ten reasons why it’s a top county for public transport and a few minor suggestions I picked up from my recent four day forray between 28th June and 1st July 2018.

1. Commendably Devon County Council produce six comprehensive (bus, train and express coach) timetable books covering the whole county (outside the unitary council areas of Torbay and Plymouth). Each has the relevant section of a countywide network map and colourful town plans. Timetable books exactly how they used to be and as they should still be. Aside from Devon, sadly only Surrey and Hampshire continue to produce information on this scale.

B00CB95D-89D9-4C02-AF2F-4AAD053FCDBF.jpeg2. Devon also use the excellent CartoGold interactive software online to show their countywide network route map with links to timetables.

3. Their JourneyDevon brand is active on social media and responds to enquiries.

4. There’s a good value Devon Day Ticket available on every bus route in the county      for £9.30; priced at £1 above Stagecoach’s own exclusive version. There’s also a Group version for £18.60 for two adults and up to three children.

5. Stagecoach South West are the dominant operator and do a great job. Buses are well presented, staff are professional and helpful, there’s good branding and an abundant supply of colourful timetable leaflets at staffed travel shops in main towns as well as on board some buses. Many bus routes are operated by double deckers enhancing the scenic views.

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B5B02510-411E-420B-BCCF-626AFEF478C06. Plymouth CityBus similarly have a great network in Plymouth as well as routes across the border into Cornwall. Their Travel Centre on Royal Parade is conveniently located and well stocked.

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7. There are some quality independently owned bus companies providing many of the tendered routes in the county. There are also community transport organisations including Tavistock Country Bus who operate Britain’s Least Frequent Bus Route; the infamous 112 Tavistock to Dawlish on the fifth Saturday of the month between April and September.

8. GWR operate the County’s stations and most of the trains on the main line as well as the branch lines to Exmouth and Paignton which have two trains an hour and hourly to Barnstaple. Even some of the aged Pacers on these routes have been nicely refurbished complete with usb sockets. There’s a plethora of promotional information about the branch lines and the tourist potential of each and there’s a Devon Day Ranger ticket for £12.40 (not before 9am Mondays-Fridays) covering all Devon’s rail lines.

53DEA518-37AF-4082-8F5B-7295B9AA962F9. Devon County Council fund four return journeys on Summer Sundays between Exeter and Okehampton. These call at Britain’s most minimalist station Sampford Courtenay.

10. South Western Railway operate the hourly service across the south of the county from the east into Axminster and stations to Exeter which is well used including the relatively new station at Cranbrook serving the significant expansion of new housing in the area.

And a few suggestions….

There are some ‘real time’ signs at some bus stops but these don’t show actual real time. Worse, the depiction of an icon on a diagramised online route map highlights the scheduled time rather than real time implying you’ve missed the bus when you haven’t. For example at 1517 I was still waiting at Morrisons for the bus scheduled at 1513, and yet to arrive, but the image below implies it’s gone and is further along the route. Best to turn the system off if it can’t show real real time.

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Plymouth CityBus are underselling their comprehensive route network in the city by ceasing production of a printed map. Staff at the Travel Centre on Royal Parade observe they’re ‘forever getting asked for a map’. It’s on the wall but you can’t take that with you.

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It would be really helpful for passengers if Plymouth CityBus displayed timetables for Stagecoach operated bus routes and the South Hams Devon timetable book in their Plymouth Travel Centre alongside their own comprehensive display. It helps promote bus travel overall rather than restricting to one company.

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Similarly the excellent Devon County Council comprehensive network map available online and in segments in each timetable book would be very useful if printed as a whole countywide map. (Update – I’ve now been told this is produced so well done Devon). Same for Stagecoach’s network. More maps please.

The bus stops adjacent to Honiton station have no timetables displayed. It would be very reassuring and helpful to install them there.

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Lympstone Commando station is now accessible by public footpath and needs the previous ‘restricted access’ sign removed.

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All six of Devon’s excellent timetable books were impressively on display in Stagecoach’s Travel Shop in Exeter bus station but couldn’t be seen at Exeter Central station nor where they used to be prominently displayed right by the exit at Exeter St Davids – it would be good to reinstate them at these points.

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Take a trip to Devon soon and enjoy the great travel opportunities available around this lovely county by bus and train. You won’t regret it.

Roger French        2nd July 2018

It helps to have a Plan B

F1CDE101-E9BD-40A1-B3D6-DEB525F908D4.jpegThe plan was to catch Stagecoach operated route 4 from Axminster station at 1215. It runs via Honiton to Ottery St Mary where I’d pick up the four-journey-a-day Hatch Green operated rural route 382 via Whimple and Feniton.

A scheduled arrival at Axminster on the South Western Railway train at 1202 provided a nice 13 minute train-to-bus connection. The kind of connection modal integrationists would be ecstatic about. Not too tight to risk palpitations and not too slack to mean wasted time hanging around. Just about right. What could possibly go wrong?

Ominously SWR trains at Clapham Junction were all departing southwest bound around 0900 with ten minute delays ‘due to a points failure at Waterloo’ but everything still looked hopeful with predictions of valuable minutes caught up during the journey especially with a slick train detachment at Salisbury from where our rear three coaches were Bristol bound.

Indeed it turned out to be so with a predicted Axminster arrival only 5 minutes down as we departed Salisbury allowing a generous 8 minutes to wander out of the station to the adjacent bus stops. Relief all round.

Except we stopped not long after Salisbury and waited ten minutes for a late running London bound train to clear the single track section from Tisbury dashing any hope of making Axminster in time.

No matter, Plan B was soon hatched to continue to Honiton where the Fat Controller would be impressed that Thomas the SWR Train easily beats the self same Bertie Bus and a new five minute connection easily made there at 1242 from our now 21 minute late running train originally due at 1216. Even more reassuringly I spotted the roof of the Stagecoach bus above the hedgerows en route from Axminster towards Honiton as we passed at speed as you can see here….

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As a seasoned traveller I’m aware of bus stop locations near stations, alternative travel options and the need for Plan B contingencies but non regular travellers might be more easily foxed.

For example a passenger sitting across the aisle was reassuring her friend on her mobile phone she still expected to make what was now an updated five minute connection at Exeter St Davids for her next train.

As I left Honiton on board my slightly late running bus route 4, I noticed the SWR train still on the platform. National Rail was showing it as ‘delayed’ on real time apps. The further single track section west of Honiton meant the 21 minute delay would become 39 minutes as the signaller rightly sought to minimise the contagion and made the train wait a further 18 minutes to allow an ontime London bound train to come through. It eventually left at 1255 and my erstwhile passenger would definitely have missed her connection.

This makes me think if we’ve got money to invest in upgrading tracks and even building new ones, a much greater priority than HS2 is to eliminate these highly restrictive single track sections on what is a busy main line to and from London. There’s an inevitabile consequential knock on for delays from one journey to the next and huge repercussions for many hundreds of passengers and their connections. They haven’t always got a Plan B; sometimes it’s just not possible. Integrated connections are fine in theory for when everything works, but in the real world that isn’t the case.

Roger French        1st July 2018

Reported issues from last week’s travels

OK, let’s get this writing journey underway. First up, a few miscellaneous reflections on last week’s travels……

Monday 18th June to Oxenholme and the new West Coast Railways operated fill-in part-time train service to Windermere while Northern continues its May Timetable Meltdown. It certainly got the media coverage. It was overrun with train buffs and the tourists were also loving it. Meanwhile the official rail replacement buses were doing sterling work showing what an efficiently organised bus and coach operation can look like when trains hit the buffers.

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I love a heritage type diesel loco hauled train operation as much as the next self respected train enthused gent in his sixties but in the wider picture of running a modern attractive public transport offering in one of the Country’s most iconic tourist areas how can the DfT possibly justify coughing up £6,000 a day (that’s north of £2m equivalent a year) for this escapade on one short stretch of railway while Cumbria County Council have axed all socially needed bus routes in the County for lack of public funding. It’s from the same barmy school of public transport finances as TfL’s fairground joyride between North Greenwich and Royal Victoria soaking up subsidy while well used bus routes throughout the Capital are having their frequencies cut for lack of funds.

You can’t beat the throaty sound of a Class 37 loco of course, but what really impressed me about the ride to Windermere was the West Coast Railway employee walking through the train with an armful of the splendid Stagecoach timetable books for the Lake District handing them out to passengers with such gusto and positivity. It was a delight to witness and even more so to see many similar comments on Twitter where others remarked the same on their journey. I couldn’t help contrast this with Arriva’s’ latest misplaced boast that to help save the environment they’re ceasing production of printed timetables in Leicester. A sure fire contender for Dunce Decision of the Year Award at the year end. If I were Nigel Eggleton running First Bus in Leicester I’d be distributing printed timetables like confetti all over the city; never mind any impact on climate change.

Tuesday 19th June was not the highest point of my travelling week. I’d put my trust in Arriva Kent (although actually it’s their separately owned New Enterprise business  – ‘low cost unit’ and all that) taking me on what looks like a delightful once-a-week rural bus journey through the wonderful Weald of Kent villages ending in Sandhurst, a small settlement east of Hawkurst. I do love a quirky bus ride. As Twitter followers will know it ended in disaster as although I arrived at the terminus in good time, the driver decided not to call there on the return journey back to Sandhurst and I was left high and dry.

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However, I forgive the driver. He’s probably never taken anyone in all his route 24 driving experience to the Lockmeadow bus shelter and terminal stop alongside Maidstone’s down-at-heel Tuesday and Saturday market. So he’d hardly be expecting to pick up a bus geek out on a jolly for the return trip. What really got to me was Arriva’s tweet response to my enquiring where the bus was.

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In complete defence mode ^JW told me “there have been no reported issues regarding this service”. Err, what part of “I’m reporting an issue” don’t you understand ^JW? It got worse. I’d clung desperately to the national Arriva customer helpline for help – the first minute or so spent taking in the extensive geographic options (not helped by Kent turning out to be Option 7) then landing on a customer service option only to give up after waiting over 13 minutes. The ever unsympathetic response from the Arriva Tweet Hub (probably based in Luton) admonished me as ‘the maximum wait time was 8 minutes”. Oh not it wasn’t. Still at least I could log it all formally on an online form.

The only positive outcome was my catalogue of woe emailed to Oliver Monahan, Arriva’s MD for Surrey and Kent, received a first class response including profuse apologies and commitment to pursue matters. I was impressed; the kind of reply I’d have sent back in the day when things went seriously awry in Brighton & Hove, as they inevitably do from time to time in the transport world. It’s how you deal with such hiccups and put them right that matters, usually more than the original mess up as well as making sure there’s no repeat performance. Complaints and feedback are nuggets of gold. Always have been, always will be.

Thursday 21st June was Midland Main Line meltdown day. Much more than the usual Thameslink chaos due to a signal failure in the Luton area. You might have seen photos online of passengers rebelling in St Albans. I got caught up in it at St Pancras having planned to travel to Matlock and across to Sheffield by bus.

In all the chaos at STP I must say the East Midlands Trains staff were excellent with regular PA announcements explaining the background and keeping everyone calm. Alternative options via the East Coast Main Line were explained. I opted for this as there was clearly enough disruption to last a morning on the MML. It’s unfortunate that on boarding the Virgin Trains East Coast train at neighbouring Kings Cross you get the usual diatribe of what tickets you can and cannot use with no reassurance about Midland Main Line passengers in unfamiliar territory. Another example of rail staff not being as up to speed with fast changing developments in disruption as app-wielding online-enabled passengers. Time and again this comes through in Transport Focus surveys, yet we don’t seem to get improvements.

In a change of travel plans I made it eventually to Leeds and met up with the delightful All The Stations crew of Geoff and Vicki who with the RDG’s help were once again doing their best to promote train travel by marking the longest day (still 24 hours I know – but maximum daylight hours!) by riding Britain’s longest train journey from Aberdeen (0820) to Penzance (2143) operated by Cross Country.

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Geoff and Vicki are the charismatic couple who visited all 2,563 National Rail stations last summer managing to amass more positive coverage for rail travel than the RDG and any train company’s off-beam PR stunts and campaigning has achieved, ever. They were on top form as always, enthusiastic, energetic and a delight to be with as I travelled down to Derby on board. It’s a shame this Cross Country journey may be axed in the current review as part of the consultation for the next franchise. Edinburgh to Plymouth doesn’t have the same ring to it. You have until 30th August to comment here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/cross-country-rail-franchise

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The impressive new platforms at Derby are now looking almost ready for the extensive summer blockade which will see track, points and signal updates aplenty to enable better journeys through this rail hub in coming years.

Saturday 22nd June and back to Sheffield to sample three wonderful bus routes through the Peak District. But first one of those all too frequent train travel niggles. When the seat reservations are down. Even worse when a 5 coach train set is substituted for a longer train at the last minute. The usual bad feeling at every station along the route with passengers demanding “that’s my seat” being retorted with “well she’s in my seat over there” and “there ARE no seat reservations” with “but I’ve got a reservation”. Why oh why the message can’t be passed up the line so an announcement is made at stations BEFORE passengers board about reservations being caput, I really don’t know.

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The highlight of the day was undoubtedly riding High Peak operated route 65 from Sheffield across the wonderful Peak District scenery to Buxton. A full bus by the time we were on the outskirts of Sheffield but with just six full fare payers. It’s mostly a tendered operation and currently being reviewed by Derbyshire County Council. Now is not the appropriate place to comment on the economics of the concessionary fare scheme, but I couldn’t help think this really would be a commercial goldmine of a service if commercial fares were charged and it was properly marketed as a tourist route ideal for walkers, visitors as well as locals. Yet a cash strapped county council ends up struggling to both pay the fares of most of the passengers travelling and finding the money to pay for the bus and driver. Doesn’t add up to me.

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A quick ride down to Bakewell on the soon to be cut back TransPeak branded Manchester to Derby well established bus route before catching TM Travel run 218 back via the magnificent Chatsworth House and grounds to Sheffield. Transpeak will be running only between Buxton and Derby from next month. Not surprising in view of the new Northern Railway improved half hourly Buxton to Manchester timetable; assuming it’s one of the routes running as scheduled. The 218 is another well used route by visitors to the National Park and although TM Travel have some swanky liveried single decks especially branded for the route, perhaps it’s the weekend loadings, for it was nice to see double decks out doing a roaring trade.

Sunday 23rd June and to get away from it all a day trip to the wonderfully remote Berney Arms request stop station (more like an old style ‘Halt’ – there’s not even a bin bag fluttering in the breeze) situated on the Norfolk Broads. There are no road connections, just a rough footpath across a field. Although very limited journeys call at the station during weekdays and Saturdays (two in each direction), on Sundays there’s a two hourly service between 0800 and 1600 making for many travel possibilities combining a trip to this “must visit” station with a splendid walk in the surrounding Broads.

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The sound of silence is something to be heard once the train leaves you on the minimalist platform as is the wonderful clickety-click you hear as the train approaches from afar to pick you back up again. A visit is highly recommended.

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I love quirky station posters and these two from the platform are my all time favourites. One advising “you are here” and the other offering a job opportunity with a media company. How totally bizarre. I wonder how many applicants they’ve had from passengers waiting for a train at Berney Arms. I’m thinking of applying. I’ll let you know if I get the job in a future blogpost.

Next blog post coming soon is especially if you’re feeling down. A Pick Me Up.

Roger French        25th June 2018