May’s new timetable on track: Part 1

Tuesday 21st May 2019

IMG_7172.jpgFirst improvement in the May 2019 rail timetable I experienced yesterday on my tour around was from my own local station, Hassocks where our disjointed two an hour trains to the Thameslink Core stations and on to Bedford or Cambridge (one an hour to each but to a 40/20 pattern) have been replaced with the new even half hourly Brighton to Cambridge service. Bye bye Bedford it’s been good to know you.

I caught the new 0748 which goes to Cambridge whereas previously there had been a long gap in our peak hour timetable until the 0808 to Bedford which now no longer calls at Hassocks.

IMG_7180.jpgIt wasn’t surprising on this first morning there were few passengers boarding or on board the train from Brighton, although by East Croydon we’d got busier, and by London Bridge as well as many alighting, there were also many boarding almost certainly unaware they were catching a new and extra peak hour twelve coach train. And that doesn’t often happen in commuter land. It’s a welcome addition to the timetable as are the new Saturday Cambridge Brighton journeys and the Sunday journeys which venture as far south as Gatwick Airport.

IMG_7185.jpgTimekeeping on the 0748 had been excellent throughout for this first day; we arrived London Bridge spot on time and through the Thameslink Core with five minutes spare to wait at Finsbury Park (even time for our driver to come back on board for a toilet break) before continuing north with noticeably few passengers on board this extra journey to last week’s timetable.

IMG_7193.jpgI got off at Stevenage in time to see one of the buses now running the all new Rail Replacement Bus service which has replaced trains to Hertford North while a new terminating Bay platform is built.

IMG_7187.jpgThere’s a half hourly service running direct to Hertford North and an hourly service just to Watton-at-Stone from where a half hourly train runs via Hertford North to Moorgate as normal.

IMG_7191.jpgThere was only one passenger on the 0937 departure from Stevenage to Hertford North. I’m not sure why this arrangement is happening as the four platforms at Stevenage still look as they’ve always done to me from where the Moorgate terminators terminated, but perhaps more structural changes are ahead.

I headed back south to Finsbury Park on a Horsham bound train (from Peterborough), did a quick cross platform change there to a Great Northern train from Hertford North and down the former City Line to Moorgate.

IMG_7198.jpgWhat a shame the former Network South East tiling and branding is finally being removed from these stations. Moorgate is presumably the first to be rebranded as so far Old Street, Essex Road, Highbury & Islington and Drayton Park remain untouched.

IMG_7201.jpgAs both Peterborough and Hertford North originating trains arrived and departed Finsbury Park at exactly the same time it was interesting to see just how many passengers dashed across the platform from one train to the other to either make their way towards stations on the Thameslink Core or to Moorgate.

IMG_7200.jpgSome interesting journey options and connections to the Underground are now available. I was heading to Liverpool Street and could have changed at Farringdon on to the Underground but decided to opt for Moorgate and take a stroll.

IMG_7205.jpgI arrived in good time at Liverpool Street to catch the very first northbound ‘Norwich in 90’ train operated by Greater Anglia at 1100, displacing the usual half hourly Norwich departure with its stops along the way at that time to 1102.

IMG_E7223.jpgThe ‘Norwich in 90’ idea is classic political and PR puff. Great for photo shoots and making out how wonderful everyone is at successfully campaigning for some eye catching achievement and for train companies to pat themselves on the back for responding to such calls for ‘improvements’, but of dubious benefit in the grand scheme of things.

IMG_7206.jpgNorwich folk make comparisons between the normal one hour fifty minute journey time for the 115 miles to London with the same time it takes to run non-stop from York over the 200 miles down to the Capital. But that ignores the crucial point that trains running southbound non-stop from York have come from Edinburgh, Newcastle, Durham, Darlington as well as Sunderland and other stations so already have a huge number of passengers on board making for an often full train load to whizz down to London.

The trouble for Norwich is that it’s at the end of the line, and to muster up the same number of passengers to head down to London, albeit with a stop in Ipswich is never going to stack up especially with a decent half hourly train running between the cities all day.

At the moment there are just two 90 minute journeys in each direction utilising one train which sits in Norwich for four and a half hours between the return runs. While the timings work well for Norwichites wanting a day out in London (0900 from Norwich and 1900 return from Liverpool Street) it’s not quite so good for a day in Norwich, unless you like a late start, leaving London at 1100 with a return at 1700.

And it’s that return at 1700, arriving Liverpool Street at 1830 just as the tracks are already stacked out with departing commuter trains which has caused the most consternation among Norwich in 90 critics. It’s meant a whole raft of tweaks have been necessary to create a smooth path for the all important 1830 arrival. Here’s a quick run through courtesy of Today’s Railways magazine ….

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IMG_7305.jpgAfter all that yesterday’s first run on the 1700 from Norwich hit a red signal near Bethnal Green arriving into Liverpool Street five minutes down at 1835.

My 1100 northbound journey fared better as did the first 0900 southbound, both achieving the 90 minute target; just as well with all the red lanyard wearing Greater Anglia staff, VIPs and camera crews on board.

IMG_7212.jpgWe nearly missed it with a slowing down near Diss, but they’d apparently chosen the fastest pair of engines in the fleet and our driver made up for that hiccup and arrived spot on time at 1230. While the two First Class carriages were well occupied with guests, I did a head count in standard class after we left Ipswich; there were 78 on board who could have all just about fitted into one carriage instead of the seven we had! Meanwhile the former stopping train that left 2 minutes behind us also looked to have a similar load on board as we pulled out of Liverpool Street.

IMG_7219.jpgGreater Anglia had hoped to show off one of their new trains on the Norwich in 90 runs yesterday but alas as is the way with new trains, testing is still going on and everything’s running late, so it wasn’t to be.

IMG_7226.jpgI came across a new Class 745 train on test on my next journey to Great Yarmouth where it made for an interesting contrast alongside the Class 37 engine which had brought us across the wonderful Norfolk Broads and which are still helping to keep the timetable on track until new trains are ready.

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IMG_7222.jpgIt’s an exciting time for Greater Anglia who are replacing their entire fleet over the next year and I’m sure the positive publicity surrounding the ‘Norwich in 90’ will all help to raise the profile of train travel in the region which has to be good; and it was certainly an impressive ride, if totally uncommercial.

IMG_7227.jpgAfter my nostalgic ride across to Great Yarmouth and back I just got caught up in the tail end of delays due to an earlier signal failure at Ely making for a late running 1357 departure from Norwich to Liverpool. East Midlands Trains were doing their best to recover service and combined the 75 minute late running 1257 departure with our 15 minute late 1357 journey making for a double crewed four coach train and the consequential hiatus over seat reservations. Makes me think it really is time to do away with reservations but I know the arguments for keeping them too, and sway between the two views.

IMG_7238.jpgA ride up the East Coast Main Line on an LNER HST from Peterborough took me to Retford ….

IMG_7248.jpg… where I changed to try out the all new hourly Northern service to Gainsborough Central. Theses journeys have been tacked on to a Leeds to Sheffield timetable which provide a stopping service from Sheffield eastwards to Worksop and Retford and then to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7273.jpgPreviously the train would have veered south as it approached Gainsborough and served that town’s other station a mile south of the town centre on Lea Road and then on to Lincoln. Lea Road is a delightful station with a wonderful entrance area lovingly cared for by local people….

IMG_7286.jpg…. but it’s not nearly as conveniently sited as Central, which as it’s name implies is central. And peculiarly used to get a train service just on a Saturday and then only three return journeys which continued on via Brigg to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. These Saturday journeys still run (they give Brigg along with Kirton Lindsey their required ‘Parliamentary service’) but it’s certainly celebratory time for the new look connection back to Gainsborough Central.

IMG_7274.jpgAnd Northern have splashed the cash on some bunting to celebrate.

IMG_7276.jpgThere were just three other passengers on the 1750 arrival into Gainsborough Central yesterday having left Sheffield at a peak time 1654, but that was just day one and I’m sure as word spreads Gainsboroughites will find the new service a great improvement.

The new timetable has enabled Northern to speed up the previous hourly Sheffield via Worksop and Retford to Lincoln service by missing out the five stations between Sheffield and Worksop in the off peak (leaving them for the new Gainsborough Central train) saving about eight minutes giving a Sheffield to Lincoln in 73; that’s for 55 miles. Not quite Norwich in 90 over 115 miles but it’s a start.

IMG_7287.jpgI caught the first off peak ‘flyer’ from Lincoln at 0929 this morning and although we only had 24 on board leaving that wonderful city, we picked up a few at the next two stations, Saxilby and Gainsborough Lea Road before a good crowd at Retford and Worksop when it was foot down all the way to Sheffield and very perceptively a faster journey as we sped by the next five stations. I’m sure once this improvement becomes known it’ll become very popular especially as the train continues to Meadowhall for the shopping centre there on its way to Leeds.

IMG_7302.jpgSome passengers boarding in Lincoln wanting Sheffield were puzzled by the train showing Leeds as the destination but I overheard others on board buying through tickets to Leeds so that link up may prove beneficial.

I’m now at Sheffield and about to cross the Pennines to see more new May timetable developments and I’ll describe them in the next blog.

IMG_7307.jpgLittle tip, always follow the trolley when wanting to know which end First Class is located when it’s not displayed on station signs!

Roger French

All Line Rove Around

Monday 20th May 2019

IMG_E7095.jpgMid May’s always a good month to buy an All Line Rover and have a wander around Britain’s rail network taking a look at new initiatives introduced by various Train Operating Companies in the May timetable change. This year’s changes are bound to be much smoother than last year’s collective meltdown especially as some improvements that looked dodgy have already been postponed at the last minute.

For example, the new station due to open on the Stratford to Bishops Sortford line near Tottenham at Meridian Water has been postponed for a week or two (as predicted); while the introduction of Class 37 locos on peak hour journeys between Cardiff and Rhymney and refurbished Class 442s on SWR’s promised enhancements on the Waterloo/Portsmouth line have both been postponed just in the last week or so; still far better to delay than implement if everything’s not ready and risk it all going wrong. Definitely the lesson learned from May 2018.

There are still enough new interesting developments to seek out and experience and I’ll describe my travels as the week progresses.

The All Line Rover ticket has been around for ages. Every year in Barry Doe’s review of Rail Rovers in Rail magazine (there are 73 different Rovers available in regional areas all over the country) he observes “it is now eight years since the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) said that one advantage of the then all new All-Line time restrictions was that operators would now be more content to advertise its existence, as business abstraction had been removed.”

In 2011 restrictions on using certain long distance train companies’ services before 1000 were introduced on the All Line Rover at Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross as well as Watford Junction, Milton Keynes, Birmingham New Street, Luton+Airport, Bedford and Stevenage but as Barry continues “the only operators to advertise the All-Line in their general publicity remain GWR and Northern – and the Rail Delivery Group that subsumed ATOC has produced nothing centrally at all. What other industry would totally ignore its most extensive and comprehensive product?'”; good point as always Barry.

IMG_E7266.jpgIt’s not that the price of the All Line Rover is a giveaway. The longest version is for 14 day validity. The full, non-Railcard, price for that is £796 and for 7 days it’s £526 for Standard Class travel. That works out at either £56.85 or £75.14 a day. You have to be a very committed traveller to be spending those sums every day continuously for a fortnight or a week. Some days you might be quids in when making long journeys, but other days if you’re just making shorter trips it might be cheaper to pay-as-you-go. And if you’re one who likes to plan a Rover in advance to specific train journeys to get maximum distance and value, you might find it cheaper to buy a week or fortnight’s worth of Advance Purchase tickets.

On the other hand the great thing about a Rover ticket is the wonderful freedom it gives you to travel anywhere and change plans as the mood takes you. Indeed for the next seven days while I’ve got a few milestones to cover I’m happy to change plans at a moments notice. At this time of year it’s easy to book overnight accommodation at the last minute too which helps for such sporadic random travelling.

Built into the price of a Rover therefore is the freedom and flexibility it offers. Mind you the same is true for season tickets and Barry also often makes the point that with ‘Any Permitted’ routes you can also enjoy many travel options across wide areas simply by buying a One Week season between distant destinations.

As my Twitter followers will know, for this week, I opted for the 7 day First Class version which with my one third off Senior Railcard discount works out at a similar price to the full price Standard Class ticket coming in at £525.35. The joy of being over sixty! First Class for the price of Standard.

Full whack First Class would cost £796 and the top of the range fourteen day is £1,216. You’d really have to clock the miles up on First Class enabled trains to get your money’s worth with that one.

For me though it’s been the bargain of the year as once again I’ve saved up my Delay Repay vouchers over the last twelve months’ travels and cashed all £497.47 of them in meaning I paid just £27.88 for my £525.35 All Line Rover. Not bad; although as I wrote the other day with reliability improving on GTR, I doubt I’ll ever amass as much compensation in the coming year so won’t be able to do the same in 2020, although many of the larger claims are in respect of longer journeys which are worth more, and it all adds up.

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I’m probably one of the few passengers who generally don’t mind delays especially when they become severe, reimbursement gets generous and I’m not in a hurry!

There is of course an even greater value ticket and that’s the BritRail Pass which gives all the benefits of an All Line Rover and also including no pre 1000 restrictions on those business routes as an added bonus for roughly half the price.

IMG_E7265.jpgThe only snag is BritRail passes are not available to UK residents; only to those registered as resident overseas. The 8 day full adult price for Standard Class (no 7 day version exists) is currently $328 which is about £257, about half the price of the 7 Day All Line Rover at £526.

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I’ll certainly be getting my £27.88 worth of value in the coming week and am looking forward to sharing my travel experiences with you in the coming days.

Roger French