13 April 2018

A Trip round The Smoke

It had been some time since I last visited London with the sole aim to have a ride on the Capital’s transport system. Despite today being ‘unlucky’ (Friday the thirteenth), I found time to head from Peterborough to King’s Cross with Virgin Trains East Coast before heading into the Underground system.

Having had to go searching for the iconic Tube map at King’s Cross St. Pancras station, I was a little dismayed to see that very little additional information is now presented as standard in the ticket machine areas. Knowing that I wanted to sample a ride on the new Class 345 trains that will eventually run the full length of the Crossrail route, I headed for the Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines to take me to Liverpool Street.

This is located underground the entrance to St. Pancras International station, from where I could see something new – a TfL Information Centre, painted in pink. I headed in and had a gander at the information on offer. Ideally I wanted what I refer to as the London Connections map, which shows all rail lines in the Greater London area, extending to the south coast and as far north of Peterborough, with the Underground and Tram networks interwoven, too.

This was not forthcoming, so I had to ask at the counter. The friendly assistant knew immediately the map I was seeking and then spent a minute going through leaflets on her side of the desk before finding it. Two minutes later I was descending the relative depth to the eastbound Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines platform for a newish S7 Tube train.

Neither checking the train’s destination nor the service it was working, once aboard the first S7 to arrive, I was momentarily confused since I found myself studying a linear route map for the District Line, which doesn’t call at Liverpool Street (or King's Cross). Soon after, once I realised my embarrassing mistake (these S7s work District and Circle Line services and show both route maps side by side), I became orientated once again and headed to the surface at Liverpool Street.

A quick check online showed that currently thirteen Class 345s are in service between Liverpool Street and Shenfield, operated by TfL Rail, which is the preliminary name for the Crossrail concession, which was awarded to MTR to operate. The Elizabeth Line name will be introduced in full when Shenfield/Abbey Wood–central London–Heathrow/Reading from December 2019.

Built in Derby by Bombardier, the Class 345 is an electric multiple unit (EMU) formed of seven coaches, with the intention to extend them to 9 in due course. The deal, signed by the DfT in February 2014, is worth £1 billion.

The first, most striking thing, to notice about the ‘345’ is the lack of yellow paint anywhere on its front/end. The requirement for a yellow end was dropped with the introduction of new accessibility legislation, which comes into effect on 1 January 2020. A requirement of new EU legislation, the PRM-TSI (persons of reduced mobility – technical specifications for interoperability) requires greater emphasis on accessibility for those with mobility issues and improved wheelchair spaces and accessible toilets. It also rightly spells the end of toilets that flush their waste onto the tracks, while dispensing with the need to paint the ends of trains yellow.

With Bombardier’s Aventra (Class 345) conforming from new, these impressive people carriers became one of the first trains to operate on the national rail network devoid of yellow at each end.

TfL has specified a black and purple colour scheme, matching the main elements of the specific roundel which is to be applied to all stations along the Crossrail route. Inside the seating trim is the standard TfL railway design, though coloured in differing shades of purple and while with black. The trains do look quite smart.

I'm a secret fan of the moquette used by TfL on its Underground and Overground services. This 'exclusive' application to items such as wallets or purses is something I'd consider buying if the price didn't feel so exorbitant that it was being done purely to fleece tourists

Unlike the Class 378s that operate the London Overground network and only have longitudinal seating, the ‘345s’ have got some traditional forward/rearward facing seats, though this is in relative short supply. Fortuitously, since I’d boarded at the first station, I was able to sit in one of these for the journey to Shenfield.

Having taken the obligatory first photos of each end of my first ‘345’ (345010), we were off at 1230. Interestingly, once opened fully, Crossrail won’t be using these platforms at Liverpool Street station, so photo opportunities of these trains at the main national rail platforms will become very short-lived, once trains start calling at the newly constructed subterranean platforms en route to/from the West End and Heathrow/Reading.

345010 stands ready to depart London Liverpool Street at 1230 bound for Shenfield. This view will become a thing of the past once the Crossrail service under central London begins operation

I was travelling using pay as you go contactless, touching in and out with a contactless card. Having travelled from King’s Cross St. Pancras to Liverpool Street I was still in Zone 1. Shenfield is outside the main Underground zones, where ‘special fares apply’, according to the linear route map inside the ‘345s’. Brentwood was the furthest station to be in a traditional zone (9).

The journey was very enjoyable. Large numbers boarded at Stratford and many alighted at Ilford and Romford. We thinned out towards the end of the route. We arrived in Shenfield at 1311, two minutes early. On the adjacent platform, I saw a Class 315 ready to work the 1314 return journey. I thought I’d not make this, so dashed across and, following a photo, sat awaiting departure.

The Class 315 is very much a railway stalwart. Built between 1980-1981, a total of 61 trains are in operation, generally running in pairs, forming 8-coach trains. They seat 318 per 4 coaches, so 636 as an 8-coach train, compared with the ‘345’ and its 450 seats. The ‘345’, however, can accommodate an additional 1,050 standees, which is where they come into their own. While the ‘315s’ have very obvious individual coaches, where doors have to be opened to move between the them (with signage discouraging this) and when coupled together passengers are unable to walk from the front 4 coaches into the rear four. Bombardier’s ‘345s’ are open and relatively spacious and where passengers can see both extremities of the train from any point.

Wearing its relatively new TfL Rail livery is BREL-built 315018 at Shenfield working the 1314 service to London Liverpool Street

Having departed Shenfield it dawned on me that I’d not touched out and back in again as I was in too much of a rush not to miss a return trip aboard a Class 315. I headed hastily to the excellent www.oyster-rail.org.uk that offers very detailed information on using Oyster, far and away more comprehensive and forthcoming than TfL’s website.

It showed that if I were to return to Liverpool Street and touch out, I “could be” charged two maximum single fares if I exceeded the limit of 90 minutes from having first touched in. A return trip to Shenfield exceeds this (just), so I left my ‘315’ at Ilford (zone 4), where a 110-minute maximum journey time is allowed from zone 1, and touched out.

A trip to Costa later, I touched in and headed into central London aboard 345010 again, alighting at Stratford.

I wanted to sample the relatively new trams introduced to Tramlink, operating between Wimbledon–Croydon–Beckenham Junction/Elmers End/New Addington. Travelling to Elmers End seemed quickest via the DLR to Canary Wharf thence another DLR to Lewisham then a Southeastern train bound for Hayes.

Gaining access to the DLR platforms at Stratford for anyone leaving a TfL Rail service bound for London is incredibly straightforward. I walked along the same platform to the end and turned left up some steps. Two autonomous DLR trains were at the platform and I chose not to catch the train ready to leave in favour of boarding the other train, where I could bagsy the front seat for a driver’s eye view of the route.

I’ve travelled the full length of the DLR on many occasions, but occupying the front seat is always very enjoyable. We had a very informative passenger service assistant who announced additional information for certain stations that was seemingly omitted by the automatic announcements.

It was a shame to leave at Canary Wharf since I knew I’d not be fortunate to occupy the same seat on the next DLR service, which arrived two minutes later from central London. As I expected, the train was very busy, with families making the most of the final week of the Easter holidays. Once on board and sat in a sideways-facing seat, we were off.

I’ve often wanted to leave at stations such as Mudchute and Cutty Sark (for Maritime Grenwich), but never have. While today’s plan was very much spontaneous, I’d still planned to head for a ride on London’s trams, so maybe next time?

I’d never undertaken a connection at Lewisham before. The DLR terminus is next to the national rail station. Once on the platform there was the usual high standard of information for all modes of transport. I noted that there was a direct bus to Elmers End, though many buses depart not from the DLR/rail interchange, but a walk a little further into town which, while stood on platform 2, put me off a little.

An all-electric Class 465 arrived punctually, and we soon departed. All the windows were open in my coach, which I thought would mean I’d have to endure wind tunnel-like conditions, though the reason soon became clear; the radiators were stuck on hot and were belching out a significant amount of heat. So much so that the excessive cool air from outside felt nice and I even started to nod off.

Upon arrival at Elmers End, it was over the footbridge to the platform opposite, from where on the opposing side, the Tramlink service to Wimbledon departs. There was an old-style tram waiting time, so I jumped on.

Earlier this year the ‘stopping pattern’ changed. I think this sounds a little too simplified – the routes were changed, so that trams from Wimbledon, after passing through the centre of Croydon, bifurcate for either Elmers End or Beckenham Junction. The New Addington service, upon arrival in Croydon, undertakes the town loop before returning from whence it came.

While a previous blog post criticised modern trams and their lack of decent seating capacity, the ability to take a seat with a view on Tramlink is quite high. Longitudinal seating is not in fashion here. 2+2 seating in most areas with large areas by certain doors for wheelchairs or buggies/prams is the order of the day!

Looking at the next tram screens located at each stop, the destination of the next three services is shown. Heading in the opposite direction was “1st Elmers End. 2nd Beckenham Jn. 3rd See front of tram.” Oh dear.

Upon arrival at East Croydon there was a driver change. We then continued. A little further on, while on the one-way loop system, I overheard a few passengers a little disgruntled that the tram was no longer destined for Wimbledon. I looked behind me at the nearest next stop screen and saw we were now bound to return to Elmers End via the town centre loop.

There was no announcement by the driver to explain why this was the case. He was happy to allow the automated system to rather clinically state the new destination for the tram without so much as a by your leave.

Not wanting to return to Elmers End, I left at this stop (Church Street) and soon after the tram departed. I always raise a sly grin when I hear someone with a broad London accent exclaim the F-word, and there was plenty of that in evidence as around 50 people were stood on the platform having been forcibly disgorged.

The next tram indicator then showed the next Wimbledon service would be in 21 minutes. A scrolling message followed that stated the service between Croydon and Wimbledon was suspended due to a failed tram. Cue more unintentionally humorous expletives. Using the excellent Google Maps app on my phone showed that to reach Wimbledon station by bus would take over 1:20! No wonder Tramlink is so popular between Croydon and Wimbledon.

A newer tram arrived, destined for New Addington. I thought that I’d jump on it to go round the town centre loop to reach West Croydon station and leave for a main line rail service to central London. Yet as soon as I boarded the driver was announcing that we were now destined for Wimbledon! Hooray!

Church Street is the location for this shot of Stadler tram 2559 originally designed for Beckenham Junction, but once on board the driver told us we would now be heading to Wimbledon

Most of the tram then left to be replaced by many of those on the platform outside. Soon after we left. Now, by accident, I found myself on one of the new trams, I had a look around to spot any differences to the original ones that commenced the service back in 2000.

Following a tram hiatus since 1952, twenty-four low-floor, articulated Bombardier Flexity Swift CR4000s were introduced in a red-based livery during 2000. From 2006 the green-based livery that is used today was introduced. The tram fleet numbers start at 2530, with the last tram to operate in 1950s London was numbered 2529. Stadler Rail was awarded a contract in 2011 to supply a further six new trams, which entered service the following year. These are from the company’s Variobahn range and a further six were added during 2015 and 2016.

A total of 36 trams are now operated by Tramlink, with the newest 12 being supplied by Stadler and the original trams built by Bombardier. Originally four different route numbers were used, though recently these have been dropped and the change to 'stopping pattern' earlier in the year has seen a greater simplification of the network, making events such as failed trams, easier to react to. First is the current operator of the Tramlink concession.

En route to Wimbledon now we were held for the single-track section after Reeves Corner while a whopping six trams heading towards Croydon were allowed through. Clearly the ‘blockage’ had been dislodged.

The alignment hereafter ostensibly follows the former BR trackbed, which saw heavy rail services cease in 1997 to make way for Tramlink.

Upon arrival at the Tramlink terminus at Wimbledon station, signage wasn’t clear at all for how to reach the District Line platforms. Instinctively following the crowd, I found myself crossing over the main national railway line where signage for the District Line presented itself.

Once aboard one of the new S7 stock again, the driver announced the train wouldn’t be departing for 10 minutes and since no other Tube was present, we all deduced that this was more a public information announcement rather than a tacit request to move onto another service.

A dwell time in excess of 10 minutes at an Underground station is not something Londoners are used to

Soon after departure, and by now it was after 1600 on a Friday afternoon, the train became very busy, with standees from the first stop. Whether this was due to a train missing in front or normal practice for this time of day – or both – we were soon headed into central London. I left at Victoria and once at the surface started a long, meandering walk to King’s Cross station, something I’ve done a few times over the years, which takes in the various squares offering wildlife while at the same time a section of Oxford Street to see the absolute opposite.

Fed and watered at The Melt Room on Noel Street (which claims to be the cheesiest place in London – I’d suggest it’s more a toasted sandwich shop in which all its menu contains average amounts of cheese), I found myself heading to platform 0 for the 1906 Virgin Trains HST bound for Lincoln, which I left at Peterborough at precisely 45 minutes after departure from London.

It was a great day and saw a couple of items ticked off my metaphorical bucket list. The Class 345s were the stand-out element of the day. I hope they’ll be well suited to their planned Crossrail role once fully operational in 2019. Even while typing this up, the possible connection improvements as a consequence of Crossrail (after having seen similar with just two through Peterborough–Horsham trains on the Thameslink route) seem quite impressive.

09 April 2018

A Lofty Lincolnshire Vantage

Is it still possible to travel on the top deck of a near-empty double-deck bus as it winds its way through the leafy lanes of Lincolnshire in 2018? Surely the double-dip recession and the relentless cut-backs to non-essential transport services would have killed off such niceties?

This is a question I'd often thought about and was able to answer today. For I had reason to travel between Horncastle and Boston - two large towns in the second largest county in England that receive just four journeys a day.

Vast fenland seperates both towns, whose hinterlands are not shared. Horncastle residents head to Lincoln, Louth or Sleaford for larger shops and the town is a draw for those living in the Woodhall Spa, Coningsby and Tattershall areas. Similarly, Boston's inhabitants have an hourly train service to Grantham (thence London or the North) and traditional inward flows are from Spalding and villages in between.

This possibly explains the very poor service between the two towns, but even so, four journeys? Really? Judging by my trip today, that would seem to be sufficient.

Granted my 1330 departure from Horncastle wasn't a typically peak journey. The schools were closed for the second week of the Easter holidays, and so today there were just a trio of journeys in either direction as one each way is a 'sprog run'. I was the only passenger to board. By contrast, forty minutes earlier, eleven passengers boarded Stagecoach's InterConnect 56 bound for Lincoln.

I'd tried in vain to find a contact number for Bryaine Travel on their professional website. It would appear this has been deliberately omitted; happily, Lincolnshire County Council's public transport department, who's responsible for producing decent timetable information at most stops throughout this sprawling county, had included a phone number in the Operators legend.

Having established my fare was £5.30, soon after the bus turned up. From the timetable it had returned from a circular service (A8) from Horncastle to Roughton then a one-way loop via Woodhall Spa, Tattersall Thorpe, Coningsby and Kirkby-on-Bain before returning to Horncastle via Roughton. The bus was an ex-Stagecoach London TransBus Trident/TransBus ALX400, LX03 BWW, which still displayed its previous fleet number in the upper saloon, 17803.

Brylaine's LX03 BWW seen heading to Showbus in September 2015. (Photo: M Kirk)

Brylaine uses Ticketer for its ticketing system and they were one of the first operators nationally to offer a free mobile app that shows the location of all their in service buses. This went live before the Stagecoach and East Yorkshire apps, which we've detailed in recent LEYTRs. Frustratingly I'd left my mobile phone at home today and so was unable to check to see how accurate this app is.

Having waited time for a few minutes, we left at precisely 1330. As with previous journeys I've made by bus - the most similar being Trent Barton's Comet service from Chesterfield to Derby - timings seem incredibly tight. At no point did we leave any timing point early, yet we never stopped to pick up or set down any passengers.

I was the sole passenger on board for the entirety.

In answer to my question, yes it is still possible to travel on the top deck of a near-empty double-decker as it wends its merry way around rural Lincoln. The route, while starting off on main roads, soon becomes intricate and involves single-track roads for long periods of times, with the driver expertly negotiating oncoming cars, vans and tractors. Through Wood Enderby to Mareham-le-Fen, Revesby, New Bolingbroke and Carrington before heading off down more winding, narrow lanes from Cowbridge to Frith Bank then back into Boston alongside the Maud Foster Drain and then via John Adams Way to reach the bus station in the town centre.

Lincolnshire bus travellers, similar to neighbouring Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, are afforded great views from the top decks of their buses. While many consider the Fens to be flat and boring, on a clear day like today you could see for miles. Unlike more rugged terrain, I feel that the Fens make you appreciate what a small pawn you are in a much larger game.

Brylaine's Service A6 is part-subsidised. The first journeys in either direction cater for school and college students, more so the journey to Horncastle which only runs on schooldays; the equivalent journey to Boston still operates during school holidays. There are then two late-morning/early-afternoon journeys fulfilling the leisure market role before last departures in either direction. From Horncasle this is a blatant school bus, starting at the Banovallum School and not operating via the town centre; from Boston the departure is at 1715 and doubles again as a college bus/commuter bus home.

Later on in the afternoon I stumbled across another journey involving a double-decker through rural Lincolnshire with very few on board. Centrebus's Service 26, from Grantham to Aslackby, though that, as they say, is another story...

03 April 2018

The Problem with Trams

Undoubtedly adding light rail to an urban area’s transport portfolio is a step forward. Always. When, in modern times, has the imposition of trams to the roads of any British city centre resulted in a tangibly negative effect? There are what feel like long-term frustrations as the infrastructure for a new light rail network is put in place and, more recently in the case of Edinburgh, negative stories in the national press concerning poor financial planning, scheme scale backs and the resignation of board members.

So it was on 26 March that I finally found time to visit this new light rail system in Edinburgh, just over two years since the system opened. I only had the afternoon in which to spend in Scotland’s capital city, from 1530 to 1830, and during this time every tram I saw was incredibly busy.

I made a couple of trips aboard Lothian’s new(ish) hybrid vehicles between Princes Street and Gyle Centre and then headed in the same direction aboard the Edinburgh Tram. The frequency was headlined as a tram every 3–7 minutes, which is very frequent (are any other British tramways offering a 3-minute frequency?) but specific timings weren’t shown.

Once on board one of these heaving machines, it suddenly dawned on me that if these seventeen CAF Urbos 3 trams had as many seats in them as the Siemens-Duewag trams plying their trade along the metals of the Supertram network in Greater Sheffield, they’d look far less busy. The layout of more modern trams that, from my own observations, started with Nottingham’s, is such that they’re crowd carriers first and foremost, and offer comfort to those fortunate enough to find a seat, second. 

Edinburgh’s trams seat 78 while Sheffield’s seat just ten more. But while Edinburgh’s have been designed with all areas as low as possible, to enable standees the full length of each tram, Sheffield’s haven’t. Theirs have a high section in the centre coach, considerably more conducive to sitting and admiring those steep gradients around the Manor suburb.

I fear that those, like me, who like to sit in comfort when travelling on a tram are being ignored by the case to cram as many souls on as possible. Edinburgh’s trams were very popular and for all of their route they mirror local Lothian Buses services, as well as that operator’s premium Airlink routes. It could be seen as justifiable that new tram design seeks to minimise seating as a whole, in favour of standees. After all, this has been the case for many years in the rail industry, with London Overground’s Class 378’s being open-plan throughout their 5-car entirety. Thameslink’s new Class 700s are similarly designed to look almost as open-plan as the ‘378s’, save being punctured in the middle of these 12-car formations by an accessible loo.

This is a far cry from the bus industry, where faux-leather seating, mood lighting, fake laminate flooring, free wifi and at-seat charging points are standard on most operator’s new buses. Most seats tend to be high-backed, affording the weary traveller the option of a little snooze. Yet Thameslink’s ‘700s’ have only seating that enables you to rest your head.

Edinburgh Trams contacted LEYTR to say that their passengers typically travel on their trams for less than 20 minutes and so would benefit little from this tech. That’s fair enough – not everyone dutifully hands over as very reasonable £4 to travel all day on their and Lothian’s services for fun – and so have lower expectations seeing the tram simply as an option to get from A to B.

That said, I bet had this been available 20 years ago trams of that era would have come equipped with it. Supertram for sure. West Midlands Metro definitely.

The rail industry is trying its best to manage phenomenal growth. The bus industry, sadly, is managing overall decline. Tram networks, judging by the most recent operational data, are in the rail camp. Crudely, I suspect that if they were facing declining passengers and revenues, they’d suddenly hit on the idea of making their vehicles more inviting and places you’d actually like to spend some time. Cue USB charging points, leather seats and laminate flooring.

Until then I feel that I should probably be grateful that my opening gambit still rings true. Trams are a phenomenal success story wherever they’re operated. These urban transport systems are perpetually being expanded. For the foreseeable future, those in the minority who like to travel on trams for leisure will probably have to tolerate declining conditions of comfort, happy in the knowledge that they’re continuing to be the runaway success story they’ve been since Manchester opened its second-generation tram network in 1992.

12 February 2018

To Re-Nationalise or Not

A very pertinent piece in last Sunday’s Observer caught my eye. Its business leader made the point that profit isn’t seen as a natural bedfellow with the railway as there are a ‘carriageload’ of other considerations that need to be dealt with first – safety, punctuality and affordability to name but three.

Only after running safe, punctual and affordable services will passengers sit comfortably with the operator making profit. And since the government and Network Rail, its nationalised infraco, tie operators’ hands on the ability to run punctual trains or to offer fares that are very subjectively affordable, there are few scenarios when passengers will see an operator worthy of profit.

The Observer suggested that an operator shunning its financial risk would frustrate this delicate balancing act further; and with Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) set to ‘hand back the keys’ during 2018, government should understand the reasons for the latest default on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) franchise.

The latest edition of the LEYTR has a piece in which a little sympathy is afforded to VTEC. The Stagecoach/Virgin bid was based on certain infrastructure improvements along the route of the Flying Scotsman during the franchise tenure, which will now happen at a later date. Since Network Rail is responsible for improving track and signals, the government ultimately moved the goal posts and VTEC felt it had to renegotiate the franchise specification.

Yet closer scrutiny of the East Coast Main Line franchise document makes it clear that these infrastructure improvements – including a grade-seperated junction at Werrington and the doubling of track between Peterborough and Huntingdon – were only assumed to be undertaken during the tenure of the franchise.

The government bares some blame here since it was happy to allow Stagecoach/Virgin to bid on these assumptions. In fact, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has admitted there was a culture of overbidding for franchises, which his department tacitly encouraged. Not any more they don't.

Regardless, VTEC’s bid for the ECML franchise can no longer be delivered under the specification that it was awarded. This is failure. By being allowed to effectively walk away from its contractual obligations – and with franchise bids costing in excess of £5 million to put together they are legally water-tight – a private firm is shunning its financial risk, thus shoving two fingers up at the industry and ergo its passengers.

Reading between the lines, however, would suggest that the government is aware that it is partially culpable, hence the announcement of its awarding a second direct award to the incumbent Virgin/Stagecoach partnership to operate the West Coast Main Line franchise on the same day that it announced the East Coast equivalent’s winding up. And allowing Stagecoach to reach the final round in bidding for the East Midlands franchise.

VTEC has agreed to pay the government £3.3 billion over the life of its franchise and terminating early with the government’s blessing means that around £2 billion won’t now be received (after considering the cash VTEC has paid the government to date). Fining Stagecoach Group and Virgin would be the obvious choice, though, again, since the government is aware of its culpability in this sorry story would no doubt see it end up in court. These private firms have a habit of defending their financial interests and their ‘experts’ tend to be more competent than the government’s - something which Virgin has shown it has become quite eloquent at.

So there will be no fine just lots of statements confirming that VTEC has paid every penny is has been obliged to. Yet while around £2 billion is outstanding, this hasn’t been ‘lost’. If a new franchisee is awarded, their contract would see immediate repayments to the government. If the government chooses to release its nationalised option – Directly Operated Railways – to operate the ECML franchise for the second time in under 5 years, this too would see a financial gain in the form of a not-for-profit franchise the government would be propping up, where all/any profit would be retained. 

The problem is that VTEC’s repayments were ‘end-loaded’, so the level of growth was estimated as peaking towards the end of the franchise and so too were their repayments. Any new franchisee would play it much safer and would not offer such a large sum of money from the first two years or so of its franchise.

I’ll end with an observation that seems to have passed by the specialist railway media. They cannot fathom how the educated and informed passenger at large can be hoodwinked by this urge to nationalise. They cite statistic after statistic aiming to show how much better the privatised railway is when compared with the nationalised British Railways. 

The answer is, I believe, straightforward.

Similar to how large areas of the UK voted for Brexit when it could be demonstrated that they’d benefitted the most from EU-funded schemes, passengers are simply fed up and do not care anymore. They want to take control of their services, even though they know that this is a relatively meaningless statement. Passengers are now so repulsed at their train operator making a profit – a view only enhanced by the VTEC saga – that they would be happy for the government to run the trains on their behalf, happier that any profitability would likely be ploughed back into the industry.

Yes, their service may not operate with the same level of finesse as now and yes, their train may become painted in ‘dealership white’. They do not care. Not in the slightest.

Much was made of Michael Gove’s comments during the Brexit referendum campaign when he suggested people do not trust experts any more. I fear the privatised railway is now at a point where passengers just don’t trust their franchised operator at all and feel impotent and so have no option other than to turn to re-nationalisation as the best option.

Yes the sandwiches may deteriorate in quality and punctuality may flat-line, but at least no-one would be making any profit at the same time.

23 January 2018

Are Exact Fares More Acceptable?

Over the years many bus operators have trialled exact fare services. The premise is straightforward enough: passengers who wish to pay cash to travel do so using the correct fare for their journey. They drop this into a ‘hopper’ and a printed ticket then presents itself, which the passenger takes and retains for their journey.

Operators cite reduced dwell times and better punctuality as a consequence of exact fares, as passengers tend to better research their fare and ensure this is then paid exactly. Problems occur for those who do not – be they infrequent users or tourists – as this causes delays and can see a passenger have to part with more cash for their fare than they need to, which often results in resentment.

Are exact fare services more acceptable today than, say, 10 years ago?

Two prominent bus operators continue to offer exact fare services. Lothian Buses and Nottingham City Transport. Both operators have a multitude of goblets, trinkets and silverware in their respective trophy cabinets. They are seen as progressive, forward-thinking, environmentally conscious operators, who commit large sums of money into ‘green’ travel and to offer a genuine alternative to the car.

Neither operator appears to be adversely affected by their exact fare policy. There are exceptions within each operator, where certain services/brands permit change to be offered, but on the whole these operators are wholesale purveyors of ‘exact-fare only, please!’ bus services.

How do they both manage to pull off something that their competitors have often used against them?

Publicity by First in years gone by (competing with Lothian) showed how their buses were ‘more convenient’ as they offered change, while Trent Barton (competing with Nottingham City Transport) makes very clear in its publicity that its drivers offer change.

Both Lothian Buses and Nottingham City Transport provide high-frequency urban services and carrying millions of passengers a year. They benefit from economies of scale that other operators do not and can therefore afford to offer very competitive bus fares. Their range of tickets is reduced compared to other operators locally, with singles and day tickets being the staple diet.

Those travelling regularly over longer periods of time can benefit from week, month, quarterly and even annual tickets, affording their holders unlimited hop-on, hop-off travel for extended periods.

This they do with no need to offer an exact fare to the driver.

Both operators are keen to offer and maintain travel shops – Lothian Buses especially, who has many dotted in and around Edinburgh. Sales of unlimited travel tickets are high here, where staff can offer further assistance and information, not to mention those lesser-spotted timetables and network route maps. Not everyone has access to the Internet or, indeed, wants to have to print out their own timetables at home!

Nottingham City Transport’s Easyrider ticket, once purchased, can then be topped-up by direct debit. The holder need worry no more about ensuring they have sufficient credit loaded onto the card, provided they have sufficient funds in their linked account.

These travel options, along with the use of the Scottish/English National Concessionary Travel Pass (‘free over-60s bus pass’) has seen a marked reduction in the number of passengers actually needing to pay cash. What few fall into this category are catered for with simplistically-priced single and day fares, generally seeing their cost being to the nearest pound.

In years to come and with the advent of technology (which is already with us, though not yet used widely on public transport due to ‘back office’ issues) passengers will be able to pay by debit or credit card as they board. They would have no need to link their card to an operator’s specific brand of travel card; they could also benefit if travelling in a progressive local authority’s area by using the same card for multi-mode journeys that are automatically capped, as TfL has succeeded in achieving in London.

There will always be a place in society for cash. There will always be a need – latent or otherwise – to pay by cash to travel on public transport. This is something bus operators readily accept and indeed have to offer. Lothian Buses and Nottingham City Transport, through historic decisions made concerning the type of cash collection method they wanted to employ, have effectively been ahead of the curve when it comes to offering alternative payment methods to cash. They’ve had to be to prevent damage to their carefully cultivated brands. Other operators are playing catch-up.

Not all operators are as enamoured with exact fare systems, however. When Go-Ahead Group’s Go South Coast bought Thamesdown from the local authority in Swindon, it chose to end that operator’s association with exact fares in spring 2017. Go South Coast said they felt passengers would let its buses go by and flag down a competitor’s for the convenience of being able to receive change.

You may wonder how some bus operators are legally able to not offer change, yet as consumers we are never told when purchasing an item from a brand of WH Smith, for example, that their cashier is no longer permitted to give change. The answer is that change does not have to be offered if, at the time of purchase, credit does not exist.

What does this mean exactly? In Tesco, we pay for our goods at a check out. This is seen as the consumer being in credit since we have acquired the items in our basket or trolley as we’ve perused the aisles and will pay for them later. Bus travel is of course not like that. Payment is made before travel is undertaken, ergo credit does not exist.

Technicalities aside, not offering change is no longer seen as a negativity on the same scale as years gone by. The ever-changing payment methods has ensured that fewer and fewer passengers pay cash, and those that do now have a more simplified fares and ticket structure from which to choose. Add in all those travelling free with an over-60s bus pass and the chances of Nottingham and Lothian opting to ditch their exact fare systems is more unlikely than ever.

06 June 2017

A very wet Monsal Trail

We Brits are known the world over for being a hardy bunch, while being a little eccentric and taking most things in our stride. It was this thought that kept me going as I walked 8 miles in the pouring rain yesterday - for fun.

I'd recently discovered that it is now possible to walk 8.5 miles along the trackbed of the former Monsal Line through stunning Peak District scenery. The line was closed in 1968 by Labour's Barbara Castle (and not Beeching) and since 1981 it has been used by cyclists and walkers alike, offering a little bit of calm in an otherwise bustling county. There had always been one drawback, however: the three tunnels that punctured the route being inaccessible to everyone, resulting in lengthy, arduous 'diversions', a number of which were unsuitable for cyclists and families with buggies and young children.

That all changed on 13 May 2011, when the Peak District National Park re-opened the three tunnels along the route - Litton, Cressbrook and Headstone - making the route now fully accessible and relatively unique. It is now possible to walk or cycle from Millers Dale to Bakewell. The re-opening occurred following a campaign, assisted in part by Julia Bradbury's TV Railway Walks: The Peak Express programme, and £3.785 million was spent, some coming from the DfT to re-open these tunnels and to establish a through route once again.

I'd planned a visit to the Monsal Line - which has become known as the Monsal Trail since it reopened in 1981 - and frustratingly my only 'window' was a day with persistent, heavy rainfall forecast. Still, we Brits are a hardy bunch etc...

I travelled to Millers Dale - the most northern point for my walk, though not the most northern point of the trail (Chee Dale) - aboard one of G&J Holmes Coaches' short wheelbase Enviro200s in 'dealership white', working the 1230 Service 66 from Chesterfield station to Buxton. Equipped with a mandatory Derbyshire Wayfarer, 1230 came and went and I was the only one stood at the rail station bus stop so at 1236 I called the company to ask if there was a problem and was reassured that the bus was on its way and was just a little late. Two minutes later it arrived and I was the sole occupant until the centre of Chesterfield where 15 others boarded. No-one paid cash, there being a mix of concessionary bus pass holders and students with pre-paid college passes.

Service 66 can trace its roots back to NBC days when the X67 'LincMan' operated from Lincoln to Manchester via Mansfield and the first part of the existing 66 route before heading beyond Tideswell to Manchester. East Midland was the operator of the route (with some assistance from Lincolnshire Road Car), though following the lengthy route's demise and privatisation, Whites of Calver was successful in operating what we now know as the 66, passing to Stagecoach in 1995 (following the purchase of Chesterfield Transport), then onto TM Travel, following Stagecoach's retrenchment in the mid-noughties and from October 2013 G&J Holmes has been operating the route. The route is being re-tendered this October.

Soon out of Chesterfield the route makes a steady climb before dropping into Baslow, thence to Calver Sough (passing the site of the former Whites depot (now a petrol station) on the right, before heading through Eyam - famous for the Black Death - and Foolow, before negotiating the quaint and picturesque Great Hucklow and onto Tideswell. From Calver Sough, Service 65 (to/from Sheffield) operates the same route, though at alternate hours; with both services operating two-hourly, the frequency between Calver Sough and Buxton becomes a clockface, hourly one. Connections can be made at Tideswell onto the two-hourly Service 173 to either Castleton or Bakewell.

After Tideswell, we deviated from the main road to Litton, making a reverse move into a side road, and then retracing our steps. I alighted in rainfall so bad that it looked as though it was dusk. Millers Dale is in a natural valley with steep mountains either sides and while this reduced the strong wind blowing the rain underneath my trusty umbrella, it still didn't detract from with wild look to an otherwise picturesque locality!

G&J Holmes MX59 AVN Enviro200 departs Millers Dale in the pouring rain

The walk to the former station at Millers Dale is up quite a steep footpath, at the top of which the wind became more noticeable. Part of the former station comprises toilets and information boards, which were a welcome sight, if only to stock up on tissue for my glasses. And so, at 1355, I started my walk towards Bakewell. Immediately, you cross one of two impressive viaducts. One is closed to the public and from the top of the other, you can't quite appreciate how spectacular they both are. For this you'd need to head to the main road in the middle of Millers Dale.

Millers Dale station, the starting point for my walk to Bakewell

Only the western viaduct can be used and while it looks a little innocuous from the top, the views below are considerably more spectacular

Looking down from the western viaduct, a car can just be made out amidst the foliage

Once across, the route takes on a very slight incline and becomes a little less spectacular, interspersed with gaps in the foliage to see the neighbouring mountains. Cloud was low on my visit and the rain was coming down heavily. I stopped once under a tree, which while it was dripping, was doing less so than had I stood away from it. Pushing on after a few minutes, I met with a German chap who'd opted to stand under a footbridge and read a few pages of his book. I, naturally, pushed on, and as soon as I caught sight of the first tunnel, the rain started to subside. Typical.

This is the generic tunnel warning sign, displayed before each tunnel

Litton Tunnel is the first of three between here and Bakewell, all of which are now open to the public. Hitherto, walkers would have to climb the not inconsiderable mountain immediately to the left of the tunnel entrance, in order to continue. Naturally this was the end of the line for cyclists! Now, we can just plough on through the tunnel - taking note of the signs telling us not to touch the sides! - and come out the other end.

From 1981 to 2011, when the tunnels were closed, walkers would leave the Monsal Trail here at Litton Tunnel and head up the steep incline to the left, around the mountain

One of the most dramatic sections of the line has been inaccessible despite being outside a tunnel. This is the very short section between tunnels - where Litton Tunnel ends and immediately before Cressbrook Tunnel starts. A slight bend in the line, overlooking spectacular scenery - even on a day like today - made this short section somewhere I chose to stop and have my lunch, despite it being devoid of seating.

My favourite part of the walk is this short section between Litton Tunnel and Cressbrook Tunnel, previously inaccessible until the tunnels were reopened in 2011

Cressbrook Tunnel certainly looked more dramatic as the huge mountain through which it passes was more noticeable than Litton Tunnel. Lighting in the tunnels was minimal though effective enough and a tarmac 'road' has been laid through the middle of each for cyclists and walkers and to the east side of all tunnels a slab of walkway has been built enabling segregation for walkers, on days when there are plenty of cyclists and you don't fancy taking your chances. Tunnel lighting is turned off around dusk, making the tunnels particularly eerie at night time as there seemed to be no obvious manner in which National Park Wardens could seal them off each night.

Some work, although not a lot, has been done to sections of the tunnel walls, though walkers and cyclists are told not to touch the sides. The tarmac central 'road' can be seen and the small pedestrian 'path' to the right of the photo. A testament to the Victorians is that very little water was noted dripping through the tunnel roofs

Having emerged from Cressbrook Tunnel, the footpath walkers would use who had to leave the route at Litton Tunnel joined the trackbed again. Again, the views towards Cressbrook were very impressive, with the Cressbrook Mill standing out in the foreground. Cressbrook, incidentally, is home to a rather spectacular bus 'move' - negotiating the hairpin bend to the east of the village. Service 173 (Bakewell - Tideswell - Buxton) diverts here three times a day (once am/pm for school children and a middle of the day journey for shoppers to reach Bakewell) and while current incumbent Hulleys of Baslow uses short wheelbase Darts and Optare Solos, this wasn't always the case. Hulleys used to regularly use Leyland Lynxes and before that Stagecoach used Alexander PS-bodied Volvo B10Ms and Alexander P-bodied Leyland Tigers. The move with a full-size bus can't be undertaken in one go, and so a three-point shunt in the midst of the hairpin bend is required, often with a scraping sound of bodywork on the adverse camber of the road.

Cressbrook Tunnel looking north, in the pouring rain

A view of Cressbrook Mill. The wooden fence is the gate where the footpath from the north side of Litton Tunnel rejoins the Monsal Train. The reopening of the tunnels has meant this lengthy detour is no longer necessary

Back to the walk and there was more tree-lined route ahead before this gave way to the picture-postcard section of the line: Monsal Head. Here, Headstone Viaduct stands majestically across the Monsal Valley before heading straight into Headstone Tunnel. John Ruskin protested at the time the line and viaduct were being built, writing "The valley is gone – and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour and every fool at Bakewell in Buxton." Access to this viaduct from the road is via a million or so steps down from a visitor centre and pub - a trek I made on a number of occasions as a kid with my parents. Back then, all there was of note was the viaduct and a closed, locked, boarded-up, impenetrable tunnel. Now, however, I stood on Headstone Viaduct all alone in the pouring rain - I'd only ever been here when it was packed - and a fully open, accessible tunnel.

Headstone Viaduct is more iconic when looked at from afar than when stood atop. Had the weather been less inclement I may have been more inclined to ascend the mountain and photograph the viaduct nestled in the valley, which is the picture-postcard shot many who visit capture. Amidst all the greenery in the distance is Headstone Tunnel

Using my phone I attempted a panorama shot looking west along the valley from the tunnel to the opposite side of the viaduct.

A panorama shot of Headsman Viaduct, looking west. Click for an enlargement

I should mention that at this point I'd seen just 3 people. I now headed into Headstone Tunnel and soon heard some screaming - not what I'd been expecting - as a school party of children using bikes came hurtling through, accompanied rather loosely by appropriate adults. Headstone Tunnel was noticeably colder inside than the other two. Very much so. Once out the other side, the 'interesting' and more spectacular elements of the Monsal Trail had now gone; the remainder of the route to Bakewell was of more traditional rolling countryside, which made time pass a little slower to pass and the remainder of the journey take a little longer than it actually did.

I passed through the former Longstone station and passed Hassop station - now a designer outlet-type place and onto the former Bakewell station before arriving at the end of the route: Coombs Road Viaduct. My journey today both started and ended at viaducts. In the rain. Although I'd clocked up around 8 miles, and was feeling a little weary, I still felt frustrated that I could go no further, especially when I knew the trackbed was in tact almost all of the way to the Peak Rail track and stations at Rowsley and Darley Dale. Rowsley, incidentally, is the main problem; the trackbed has been built on and crossing the A6 trunk road is likely to be very costly with the need for a new, realigned railway and bridge. Thereafter, of course, heavy rail continues to use the line in the form of the Derwent Valley Line from Matlock to Ambergate Junction.

Longstone Station

And there ended my railway walk, along the former trackbed of the Midland Railway. It was now 1635 and I found myself in the Original Bakewell Pudding Shop purchasing a medium-sized pudding. The rain was still falling and so I had to endure the bus shelter in Bakewell Square that smelled of urine, to devour the very tasty pudding, the recipe for which was invented by accident around 1860.

Hulleys of Baslow's Optare Solo MX09 AOF is seen here in Bakewell Square before departure to Matlock at 1715

I had intended to return home using Trent Barton's 6.1 to Matlock, though completing the walk a little faster than I'd planned meant I could take the more scenic Service 172 at 1715 to Matlock via Youlgreave, Birchover and Elton. Again, time was Hulleys would use Lynxes and in the evening Stagecoach would use PS-bodied Volvo B10Ms along roads that our Optare Solo struggled to negotiate at times. I was the only passenger on board as we entered Elton, and following the reverse move into a side road (as per the same at Litton earlier on), we gained a passenger in the form of political pundit, author, former West Derbyshire Conservative MP and former Times sketchwriter, Matthew Parris. He was catching the train from Matlock, whereas I was headed to Chesterfield aboard the 1815 Stagecoach Gold-branded Service X17, bound for Sheffield.

Since the opening of Matlock's relief road, the town has a rather pointless two bus stations. Some buses, such as Stagecoach's X17, continue to use the old bus station, while others use the new one, by the rail station; some even use both; some use Bakewell Road and neither bus station. It is a confusing mess for those with connections and who aren't particularly familiar with the town. Seen here is Stagecoach in Chesterfield's Scania/Enviro400 Gold-standard 15192 (YN64 OAC)

This was what you'd call a 'spirited' run, flying out of Matlock and up Lime Tree Hill. This Enviro400-bodied Scania had plenty of go in it. We hurtled along the A617 and ended up sitting at Kelstedge for a few minutes as we were early. Why the driver couldn't have travelled a little slower once we were clear of the centre of Matlock is a mystery.

I had a few minutes in Chesterfield before catching Trent Barton's 'the comet'. This is the route of the former Red Arrow extension north of Derby. We departed Chesterfield at 1855 and I was the only one on board. All traffic lights were in our favour and the next stop announcements gave the impression the service calls at limited stops to Clay Cross. Still with no-one on board we flew through Clay Cross and onto Alfreton where 4 passengers boarded. We left Alfreton bus station immediately and headed to Ripley where the driver turned the engine off. I'd assumed he had adopted the driving style of my last bus driver, but looking at the timetable showed we had just one minute to wait in Ripley, which made me wonder just how late we'd be if people actually used the service and we had to stop at the occasional red traffic light!

Trent Barton prefer individual route branding to generic route numbers and The Comet is one such example, operating half-hourly between Derby and Chesterfield using Volvo B7RLEs with Wrightbus Eclipse Urban bodies in a special black livery; 747 (FJ09 XPF) is seen here in Chesterfield New Beetwell Street

After Kilburn we were non-stop into Derby along the A38 and our driver chose to use a platform in Derby bus station specifically signed for use by National Express only, complete with additional, strongly-worded signage by NX affixed to the end of each bay. My final bus of the day was Service 1 operated by Yourbus, which departed at 1955. Plenty of people have strong, polarising views of Yourbus and the background of its management; I'm a massive fan of the type of single-decker they've chosen to standardise on: the Mercedes-Benz Citaro. For me, as a passenger, they have everything you would want. Comfortable inside, decent leg room, wide, open aisles and a decent, meaty-sounding engine. Other people wholeheartedly disagree, of course.

The day ended as it started, photographing a bus heading off into the distance having dropped me off in heavy rain. Seen here is Yourbus BD64 NCN, a Mercedes-Benz Citaro, leaving Derby rail station bound for Alvaston - a route they operate in competition with Arriva

At Derby station I alighted and caught the 2008 CrossCountry train to Nottingham, with a senior conductor who did his announcements at the same speed as the American chap who auctions off random items in garages in the USA TV programme Storage Hunters!

08 February 2017

Riding the new e320/374

M'colleague and I chanced upon a last minute trip to Paris and back, travelling on one of Eurostar's new e320 sets. These new Siemens Valaro variants are 400m long, seat 902 passengers in sixteen coaches with an electric loco at each end. They're categorised in the UK as Class 374s and replace the now ageing e300s, or Class 373s - a number of which have traversed the metals through the LEYTR area in times past when they operated on loan to GNER, running services between London King's Cross and Leeds.

The '374s' started being rolled out from November 2015 and from our observations from travelling recently, they're now the majority traction type between London St. Pancras International and Paris Gare du Nord.

While I headed south to 'that London' from the LEYTR area - on board one of Hull Trains' Class 180 Adelantes, m'colleague headed to London from Ramsgate using one of Hitachi's Class 395 Javelins, operated by Southeastern which use the CTRL (Channel Tunnel Rail Link) or HS1 at it is more commonly known.

My trip from Grantham station was the first time in many, many years that I'd opted to travel with Hull Trains. It can be easier to travel with VTEC or Great Northern from Peterborough, though the promise of Grantham to London non-stop in around an hour was too much of a pull, especially on a day when we'd be touching 186mph (300k/h) on numerous occasions during the same day. The Hull Trains '180s' are wearing well, save the odd section of gaffer tape covering tears in the carpets here and there, and the leg room in Standard was more generous than I'd expected. The TV screens in each coach were working and showing, as advertised, the weather at the next stop (London), today's news headlines, progress along the route and onward connections from the next stop. With this being King's Cross, many of the connections were pointless and few would be travelling north from King's Cross, although the Underground service statuses were likely to be useful.

Hull Trains 180109 is seen upon arrival at London King's Cross, next to a VTEC Mk 4 DVT

Yet while my '180' (180109 - as featured on the cover of this year's LEYTR) had a top speed of 125mph and m'colleague's '395' an impressive 140mph (225k/h), I'd be averaging 91mph over the 105 miles from Grantham to London, whereas m'colleague would be averaging just 60mph over the 80 miles from Ramsgate to London - and this with a large percentage of his journey being along HS1. Yet drilling down shows the 'classic lines' section hampering overall average speed: the first 24 miles being on the 'classic' lines and with five stops, averaging 38mph, thereafter (from Ashford International) the pantograph was raised and the train ran non-stop to Stratford International (50 miles) at a whopping average of 107mph.

M'colleague benefits from being an employee of a TOC and is afforded a sizeable discount on international rail travel through a FIP card (issued to rail staff after one year's service). His return fare to Paris totalled £75, comprising Standard on the outward leg and Standard Premier on the return. The public walk-on fare for an equivalent ticket was £338. There are now three classes on Eurostar services - Standard (10 coaches), Standard Premier (3 coaches) and Business Premier (3 coaches). Complimentary food and drink are offered in both Premier classes, though the Business offering comes with menus designed by a Michelin Star-rated chef and unlimited hot drinks. Standard Premier affords travellers an airline-style tray of food, wine/beer, tea/coffee and water.

As a comparison to the £388 walk-on return fare, Skyscanner showed the cheapest London to Paris fare to be £120 for travel tomorrow. Public transport costs need to be added for airport transfers, of course, (an estimated £40 minimum) but even at a total of £160 this is considerably cheaper than Eurostar's walk-on fares. However, if you opt for Business Class on the plane then the walk-on fare increases to nearly £500. That was the cheapest and returns were from differing Parisian airports. A fully flexible non-discounted Eurostar Business Premier fare is £490 and includes a premium meal. I doubt whether a plane can offer that experience on a flight of such short duration.

Congestion in the Welewyn area saw my arrival in excess of 10 minutes late (an emergency speed restriction was also blamed for the delay) and having met m'colleague who was mid-conversation with the returning Hull Trains driver at the buffer stop of Platform 5 (it's a railway thing!) we headed next door to St. Pancras to check-in - a process that, in my opinion is flawless. The barcode on your ticket grants you access to the check-in hall, and after you've been through British Border Force for a passport check you're brought to the security hall and the obligatory airline-style baggage scanner. As m'colleague discovered, an Apple Watch will set off the manual detector, necessitating a full body rub down to make sure nothing was being sneaked through.

In a nod to the airlines, Business Premier passengers have their own departure lounge and complimentary food and drinks, while everyone else waited in the main waiting area, with plenty of exorbitantly-priced snack shops to spend your money in; £1.89 for a bottle of Buxton water, for example.

Eurostar's e320s are allocated a TOPS number 374 in the UK, though in reality the trains do not show this. Their set number is in the 4xxx series (the e300/373 set number is in the 3xxx series)

The departure platform was notified just ten minutes before departure and so there was something of a dash up the travelator to the platforms above. At St. Pancras International, platforms 1-4 are used by East Midlands Trains, 5-10 for Eurostar departures/arrivals, and 11-13 are utilised by Southeatern's High Speed domestic services. Beneath the station are platforms A and B which see Thameslink services calling, bringing passengers as far afield as Gatwick, making St. Pancras an ideal locality for international services - far easier to reach by so many different modes of transport than Waterloo is, which is where Eurostar services previously used as their London terminus.

Class 374 sets are built to European loading gauge standards - they are quite visibly larger than the '373s' they replaced - and can seat 150 more passengers than their predecessor. They are 16 vehicles in length compared with 20 of the Eurostar (18 coaches plus 2 power cars). Legroom at table seats in Standard was poor - the '374s' retain the narrow table with extendable sides, making the interiors seem a little more spacious than they probably are. That said, 'cramped' would be a little unfair, but the interior was certainly devoid of any embellishments.

Old meets new. The more pointed front of the '373' stands out against its younger counterpart. Those wishing to travel on these earl-1990 stalwarts should book for Brussels as the '374s' have yet to be introduced here. 4008 (left) was our chariot to Paris

Our 1224 departure was punctual (following an announcement in English and then French). The high speed line starts just 1km from St Pancras and Stratford came and went in a flash. We were soon slowing for our only stop at Ebbsfleet International to pick up more passengers. With the line speed now 186mph (300k/h) no more than 15 minutes was required to get to Ashford, soon after which we began slowing for the Channel Tunnel. There were no special announcements to tell us this was happening and entry into it was quite muted. We had slowed to around 50mph shortly before entry - we would be slotting in with Eurotunnel 'le shuttles', which are slower to accelerate and limited to 87mph (140k/h). Eurostars are permitted 99mph (160k/h) through the Tunnel, giving us a transit time of 20 minutes for the 50km long dive under the English Channel.

Interestingly, m'colleague's iPad was still recieving a decent signal from O2 inside the tunnel but his iPhone had no signal from Three. This brings me to the on board Wi-Fi. It is essentially poor, patchy at best.

Emerging from the Tunnel we could clearly see the huge loop for Eurotunnel trains diverging to our left and we were soon passing the little-used station of Calais Frethun. It was only then that we began to reaccelerate towards our maximum 186mph cruising speed. The line is relatively flat between Calais and Lille. There are a few climbs and dips and because of our speed these were quite noticable. Passengers walking through to the buffet car were holding on - its definitely not as smooth as travelling at 125mph on the ECML! We began slowing for our transit of Lille station which is underground and has a speed limit of 200kph. It is here where trains diverge towards Brussels. Once clear of the area we reaccelerated to our 186mph line speed but the line is noticably busier as we now share the tracks with services from Brussels, Thalys services from Amsterdam as well as domestic high speed services from Boulogne and Lille.

We were slowed to 'truck speed' with some way to go for some reason - I suspect a TGV called at one of the new intermediate stations on the line before we reaccelerated to high speed for around 5 minutes and then slowed for our transit on 'classic' lines for the 15km or so into Paris Gare du Nord. Unfortunately we were brought to a stand at Garches Sarcelles, which is around 13km out and this made our arrival around 10 minutes late. Trains stop particularly close to the buffers as a high-profile faux pas occurred when the '374s' were first tested: they were too long to be fully accommodated onto the platforms at Gare du Nord!

The arrival at Paris Gare du Nord is almost nondescript by comparison to St. Pancras, however it feels like a more traditional station, with plenty of hustle and bustle. Gare du Nord is also home to many other cross-boundary high speed services

Paris Gare du Nord station is undergoing extensive improve work but its platforms are dominated by TGV train sets but I did spot an older loco hauled and some of the new Z50000 EMUs operating suburban services which have a continious open gangway through the vehicles. With just 90 minutes before check-in for our return journey, we decided to get some Metro trips in. M'colleague purchased four tickets for just over 7 euro (single trip on the tube is over £4 and only in zone 1). We boarded Line 4's MP89 rubber-tyred Metro train as far as Chatelet Les Halles. From there we boarded a driverless Line 1 train to Gare de Lyon. Driverless trains are not a new phenomenon, of course. Docklands Light Railway are in essence driverless but they still retain a passenger service agent where Line 1's MP05 trains do not. There are platform edge doors at every station, similar to those on the Jubilee Line at Canary Wharf. It felt more like an airport transit shuttle than a proper metro train.

Photography deep underground is always a challenge when your subject matter is moving at speed and you've not got an expensive camera. Seen here in less than salubrious surroundings is an MP89 rubber-tyred train on Line 4 departing Chatalet Les Halles. While one-way tickets on the Paris Metro are unquestionably excellent value for money, the state of the underground stations and ticket halls is very poor when compared with the excellent work TfL and London Underground have done over the past decades

From Gare de Lyon we transferred onto RER Line A for one stop to experience a double-decked train MI2N back to Chatelet Les Halles. From there m'colleague (who has considerable more experience traversing Paris than me) was hoping we could do a brief sightseeing tour on the surface. He was wrong. Chatelet Les Halles is a maze. And it's deep underground - about 5 levels. It took us about 15 minutes to find the right exit and get to the surface. The idea was to walk on the surface from Les Halles to Chatelet but thanks to Google Maps being unable to make up its mind which walking route to take or even which way it was facing we had to resort to looking at a good old-fashioned map on a poster board to ascertain our exact location. This was not an ideal situation. After something of a dash along a couple of streets, we found Chatelet station and headed straight back on a slow Line 4 to Gare du Nord. I doubt our speed ever exceeded 40kph on the metro.

Eurostar check-in at Gare Du Nord is simply not fit for purpose. It feels shoddily put together with not enough seating and needs a major redesign. While St. Pancras benefitted from effectively bespoke design to accommodate international trains, Gare du Nord feels like Eurostar was accommodated as an afterthought and the cramped conditions almost a punishment for the UK for being exempt from the Shengen Zone.

Possibly the only advantage of the check-in facility at Gare du Nord over that at St. Pancras is that it is all done elevated and the views of the station below are an improvement of what feels like an hermetically-sealed box in London

We boarded our train at 1800, for an 1813 departure and what a difference! Standard and Business Premier coaches share the same seating arrangements, which are 2+1. Each seat has a plug socket and the Wi-Fi works much better. Shortly after departure, we were being served a snack, a roll and butter followed by either salmon or quiche with salad and a crepe for desert. Wine was offered, which we gladly accepted and after that tea or coffee followed. There were also little chocolates. The whole experience was so much more pleasant than being crammed into the Standard class seating.

Now it was dark outside, the return journey was considerably more nondescript than the outward one. The onboard Wi-Fi showed our train's exact location and the speed we were currently travelling at. Normal GPS devises don't work on the '374s', apparently due to a reflective coating applied to the windows, to reduce glare and heat.

Our chariot home (4011), upon arrival at St. Pancras

Our speed never exceeded 295kph, indicative of a cruise control device set at that speed. We slowed for Lille and once clear we reaccelerated towards Calais but this time our speed never went above 280kph. I wondered what the reason was - it became obvious later. We had a seemingly normal transit of the Channel Tunnel but after accelerating away towards Ashford we were slowed down to 50mph. I was able to check Realtime Trains which showed we had been running behind the Brussels service from Lille, explaining our driver's reluctance to run at full speed and that the Lille service was booked to make an Ashford stop. Acceleration was very swift once the train in front had got out the way - we spotted it at a stand in the platform and just 14 minutes later we were arriving at Ebbsfleet International. M'colleague chose to leave the train here, and head back to the coast using a '395', departing just four minutes later, apparently necessitating a light jog along the platform. He also had a  change of train at Ashford but was home for 2045.

The e320 is not in short supply at Gare du Nord. Note the proximity of the trains to the buffer stops. While there are two fewer coaches compared to their predecessor, trains are in fact longer, seat more passengers and initially failed to fit on the platforms at Gare du Nord

I, meanwhile, remained on the '374' to St. Pancras International and trundled across to King's Cross in the pouring rain. With my 2030 departure to Grantham being Hull Trains again (their last of the day and formed of 180111), spotting the correct platform before it was advertised was straightforward for obvious reasons. Also, the station was very quiet at this time, mid-week during the school term.

I opted for Coach A in the '180' again - the Quiet Coach, something a couple also for Grantham were seemingly unaware of, watching as they were clips of Kim Woodburn's interview on This Morning via YouTube. After plenty of passive non-aggression from passengers much nearer to them than me, and there being no change in attitude from the offending couple, I moved into the next coach up where it was ironically quieter. That said, the journey was as enjoyable as the outward one and with less padding in the timetable in this direction, my Adelante required to attain an average speed of 103mph to reach Grantham in 61 minutes.

The attentive service on board Hull Trains was in evidence for both my journeys, with the On Board Manager naming all staff on board. My first ever journey with them 12 years ago saw the guard even name the driver upon arrival at King's Cross. A genuine family feel was felt, although diminished somewhat through the FirstGroup branding and signage, but a very impressive standard is maintained nonetheless

We arrived 2 minutes late, possibly due to the driving rain, but nonetheless, this is one of the fastest was to travel between London and Grantham. An aspiration is to make the journey time 1 hour, but with the current capacity constraints of the ECML, this is not likely to be realised anytime soon. Well done to Hull Trains, however, for being consistently the fastest for travel between Grantham and London though!

In summary, the e320/Class 374 is a worthy successor to its predecessor. Fewer coaches but increased capacity, a much sleeker look both inside and out, and a decent offering in Standard Premier for a little more money. As with any long-distance rail travel, booking ahead is essential in receiving the best value fares, and this stands with Eurostar.