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parrot_knight [userpic]

Candidate for worst railway journey

July 12th, 2006 (08:38 pm)

Well, I'm back at my parents' now; and given that I was only an hour and twenty minutes late into Newcastle I suppose that I should be grateful.

The first odd thing about the journey was that I was booked on a ghost train. The departure boards at Oxford knew nothing of the 1200 Virgin Trains service to Manchester Piccadilly via Birmingham New Street. Several travellers asked staff whether the train was running, and they were assured that it was, it was just that some northbound trains weren't being picked up by the system somehow. One of the travellers was Colin Dexter, of Morse fame, who was greeted by station staff with the affectionate mateyness reserved in this country for local heroes; I decided that if Colin Dexter was happy, then I was.

The train turned up at 1200 as promised. I'd booked a cheap first class ticket about ten days ago, but found that the first class coach was 'out of commission', whatever that means. The train was two-thirds empty so there were no problems in getting a seat elsewhere, and I was waited on with drinks, a 'snackbox' starring a brie and grape roll, and a copy of The Times as paid for. The train got in on time to Birmingham, and this is where my problems began. On looking for my connection, the 1330 to Newcastle, I was faced with the caption 'cancelled'.

A trip to the travel desk revealed Virgin staff advising northeastbound travellers to take the next train to Derby, where a coach would take ongoing passengers to Sheffield. A power failure south of Chesterfield had led to the signals failing, and they foresaw no trains going north of Derby for some time.

The next Derby train was at 1349; passengers crowded onto one of the regional train platforms, 9a, and proceeded to pack the small Central train heading for Nottingham via Derby and all stops. There were no seats and little provision for luggage; lots of us stood. The Central Trains conductor kept being asked for information, but he wasn't briefed for long-distance journeys and I knew more than he did.

I arrived at Derby expecting to be directed towards a coach; instead, Virgin had decided to let the 1403 from Birmingham to Dundee run, and this arrived at Derby at the same time as us. I was annoyed, as this suggested that I and others had had to stand on an inadequate train just to relieve crowding at Birmingham and give passengers on the 1403 the impression that they were on a normal service. They were soon to learn that it wasn't. The passengers from the Central train piled on. I was one of the last to get to first class and there were no seats there or in any of the other carriages. Pressure in the vestibules meant that the normal rule that no standing is allowed in first class was swept aside as we filled the aisle.

I assume that the 1403 had to run just to ensure that there were enough Virgin trains in northern Britain. Extra stops were announced at Chesterfield, Darlington and Durham, which are not normally served by this train, which started at Penzance six hours earlier and called almost everywhere it could in Cornwall and Devon. A patiently frustrated Canadian family were in the carriage - the mystique of 'first class' took about a second to lose its attraction for the two children, who returned to their gameboys - and I was asked by the father how long it would take to get to Sheffield from Derby. About half an hour, I thought. I was out by twenty-five minutes. The signal failures at Chesterfield had not been repaired; Network Rail staff were thick on the ground; and our driver needed separate authorizations to pass through each signal, which on one occasion took fifteen minutes. I was not surprised to learn that the train following this one from Birmingham had been cancelled.

When we finally reached Sheffield I grabbed a seat which became available and clung onto it, even though different reservation lines came and went. I wasn't challenged which suggests that those who had reserved the seat had sensibly made other arrangements. After York normal first class service was resumed and a 'revenue protection officer' banished newcomers not holding first class tickets to the standard carriages; a woman who had had to wait over two hours at Derby without any provision for her ongoing journey was allowed to keep her seat. The 'snackboxes' were produced, but this time only had tuna. I said no, and took an orange and chocolate biscuit in compensation.

The rest of the journey was uneventful by comparison, and I'm grateful that I could sit down for most of it; I think this doesn't quite beat New Year 2003, where I stood most of the way. I'd expected to arrive at Newcastle at 1652, and would have shared a taxi with my sister who was arriving on a London train at 1650. Instead I arrived at 1815 or so. Still, if there hadn't been any trains at all north of Derby, as I'd been advised at Birmingham, it would have been a lot worse. I'm definitely going to write and complain, though.


Posted by: rustica (rustica)
Posted at: July 12th, 2006 08:31 pm (UTC)


What an ordeal! Reading that, I had a flashback of my nightmare journey up to Carlisle for the seminar a couple of years ago. (That was a Virgin train too). How horrendous rail travel can be! *Sends sympathy* It sounds like you made reasonable-ish time, though, or to put it another way, it could have been an awful lot worse :(

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: July 12th, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC)

We had a bad journey to Carlisle for na_lon and the_marquis's wedding, and a worse one to Creatrix's sister for Easter ?8 years ago - everywhere was flooded, and they had combined about seven trains into one.

Anyway, *hugs* to parrot_knight. If you write tot hem, do so on an official form, and enclose your ticket; you might just get some money back.

Posted by: rustica (rustica)
Posted at: July 12th, 2006 11:02 pm (UTC)

If you send your tickets in, *do* keep a photocopy. For when they "lose" the original.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 13th, 2006 10:10 am (UTC)

I had every intention of following the official channels and of photocopying the ticket - complete with an inspector's stamp they'll recognise as being from Central Trains.

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: July 12th, 2006 08:49 pm (UTC)

Smite them, if possible. Train delays and overcrowding worry me a lot more now I have knee problems. It's not just an inconvenience, it's a health hazard for anyone not 100% agile.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 13th, 2006 10:13 am (UTC)

I shall indeed attempt smiting; as Virgin will be compensated by Network Rail for the delays they should be able to bleed funds.

Posted by: But what if I'm a mermaid? (deepbluemermaid)
Posted at: July 12th, 2006 09:17 pm (UTC)

Oh, ouch. That sounds pretty awful.

My own personal candidate for the prestigious WRJ Award was coming back from Edinburgh in November. I was supposed to be on a direct Virgin service to Oxford - but due to flooding somewhere in northern England, I ended up on six different trains. There were actually seven segments to the journey, but I caught one train twice (which pushes the thing from irritating to farcical).

There was also an incredibly stressful change at Birmingham, where I got off at platform 2 to be informed that the next train was on platform 11 in 5 minutes. I ran across this fairly large station to platform 11, to learn that they had changed the platform to...platform 2. I almost cried!

Amazingly, after all that, I only got in a couple of hours late.

Posted by: rustica (rustica)
Posted at: July 12th, 2006 11:09 pm (UTC)

I was late back from Durham because some Army spawn from Catterick barracks got slaughtered on Special Brew on the train and they thought he'd died.

So my nice 1 hour safety margin at Birmingham New St station turned into a frantic race across bridges with a bad back and a very heavy bag.

I was even less pleased when, reaching Oxford and catching my bus home at 11pm, after spending nearly a whole day travelling, some other pissed bastard vomited all over my suitcase. I got in at midnight and had to scrub the vom off my luggage.

I think you can guess what mood I was in by the end. For some reason, that trip is one I don't think I'll forget :(

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 13th, 2006 10:18 am (UTC)

That sounds pretty hellish. I speculate that there might have been a coach waiting at Derby anyway, as Midland Mainline passengers from London to Sheffield and Leeds would have had to go through the failed signals at Chesterfield as well, but it was still better to crowd onto the train. One of the many problems with the new Virgin trains is that they have insufficient room for luggage and standing passengers; the old InterCity trains just seemed more able to cope somehow.

Posted by: Adilo Creamon (the_marquis)
Posted at: July 13th, 2006 04:13 pm (UTC)

Where they're still available (Vermin do still run some services with them) I love travelling on the old 125s they're so much bigger and more airy.

Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: July 12th, 2006 09:44 pm (UTC)

You make me feel much better about the customer satisfaction survey I filled in on my way back from Wolves last week, in which I intemperately ranted that "nobody travels by Virgin Trains if they can find any reasonable alternative" and then felt guilty because I've never had an especially bad journey myself (fingers crossed) - just seen the results on the concourse at Euston, 2-3 times a week, for three years.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 13th, 2006 10:23 am (UTC)

Not entirely Virgin's fault - they had high hopes for the CrossCountry and West Coast franchises, but were too ambitious and let down on frequent occasions by Railtrack, Network Rail and the government. However, they've invested in high-tech trains which keep failing in one way or another.

Posted by: Adilo Creamon (the_marquis)
Posted at: July 12th, 2006 09:55 pm (UTC)

It's always interesting to note how on Vermin trains if there's even a slight delay 90% of train managers hide. Having travelled with them a lot I know that when they're bad they're very bad, even if the problem is not of their making they seem incapable of dealing with people sensibly or fairly.

Vermin do have their own comment forms for people to compalin about, but the days of "money back" have gone, now you get vouchers towards half of the cost of the delayed leg of your journey and only if it's an hour late. Once upon a long ago it the compensation point was 30 minutes, and you got the full value of the delayed leg - but they learned a painful financial lesson and decided that customers could hold their breath if they wanted customer service!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 13th, 2006 10:24 am (UTC)

I'll see what I get from them! The days when free coffee would be announced on a delayed train have gone as well.

Posted by: Delia (chainmailmaiden)
Posted at: July 13th, 2006 03:47 pm (UTC)

You have my sympathy, I dread long train journeys, having had too many incidents where I've been left stranded somewhere through cancellations or just been delayed for horribly long periods of time. I just hate the fact that now everything is split into so many companies it can be impossible to find out any firm information.

One time when I was supposed to be getting a direct train from London to Oxenholme, I turned up to find it had been canceled. Instead, we were supposed to catch a train to Milton Keynes, get a bus from there to somewhere else (possibly Stafford, I forget exactly where) and from there get a train to Lancaster. When I asked what time the train went from Lancaster to Oxenholme I was told that they didn't have any information on trains any further than Lancaster and had no way of finding out. This did not impress me...