Wednesday 29 January 2014

"A Little Application"

Modern information technology has enabled even small stations like Stamford to have real-time information displays on their platforms and train information announcements. No more do we wonder when the next train is supposed to be, whether it is on time or which platform we need. But it goes further than this: the same national real-time train information database can broadcast most of the same information straight into your own hand before you even leave for the station.

The introduction of the smartphone has transformed the availability of real-time information for the traveller by train and by bus. We use Apple iPhones but similar facilities are available on Android and other smart devices for those who prefer them. There are many applications (apps) available which are designed to provide the information passengers need and even to sell, and store in memory, tickets for travel. I just want to look at a few of these which we have found particularly helpful.

The first is CrossCountry Trains' Train Tickets app, which, as its name suggests, is designed to sell you tickets for their services. They make it easy to download and install the app by sending them a text message from the device on which you wish to install it - and instructions to that effect are shown on all their trains. Now, frankly, I have never found it much use for this purpose (I buy all my tickets via East Coast anyway, to get the loyalty points!) because its built-in search engine does not find all the trains available for the journey, to the extent that it found me nothing suitable for getting from Stamford to Alfreton (blog, 11 November 2013) and it is not easy to see how to book tickets for both directions. However, it is absolutely brilliant at supplying live train times, both arrivals and departures, for all train companies to and from all stations, quickly and accurately listing all the departures or arrivals at the nearest station or at a station chosen from the national list. I use it before I leave for the station to ensure that my train is running and I use it when on the train if I have a connection to make, especially when trying to make an unofficial, tight connection and I need to know if my train is a minute or two late and which platform I need to get the next one! It gives the history of the train's stops so far and predicts the likely timeliness for the rest of its journey, invaluable in case of problems but pretty handy all the time. It is free of charge, and if you only ever use it for live train times it is well worth having.

For journey planning I normally use my desktop or laptop computer but if I need to plan a journey while out and about then I use East Coast's app Trains Live which even includes a "Get me home" function which finds the next train service from wherever you happen to be to the place you have programmed it to know is your home station! It also includes an Underground map, so if you live in or visit London this is a handy little extra. Again it has a Live Departures and Arrivals but this does not seem to include all the stations: it is not as picky with stations as the CrossCountry version is with trains and does work well with the company's own stations, but for general use the CrossCountry app is better for live train times.

Mapping apps which are generally included with smartphones can be used to follow your journey more or less accurately, depending upon 3G coverage (for they struggle with "seeing" GPS satellites from inside a train), but they do eat battery charge so this is early only satisfactory if you are on a train where your phone can be plugged in. We have bought two other apps for mapping. One is UK Maps which covers the UK in road atlas style and allows selective download of detailed OS style and street atlas style maps of areas we now we're going to visit. These take up a lot of memory so we plan which ones we need and ensure that unnecessary ones are deleted after a trip - all downloading best done via wifi at home rather than eating into our included 3G data allowance. In the UK and abroad we also use CityMaps2Go which similarly allows downloading of maps of places across the world, not just in cities, although this is where is comes into its own with links to all sorts extra data. getting off the train at Gare de Lyon in Paris we navigated our way to our hotel using this app, having downloaded the Paris street map and "pinned" the hotel location on it before we left home. Theoretically Apple Maps would have done this, too, and even given turn-by-turn instructions, but CityMaps2Go gives a much more readable map more in tune with the pedestrian's needs than Apple Maps which seems to be aimed at the motorist. It is like having an A to Z atlas of every city we are ever likely to visit.

Finally, buses! There are bus apps specifically for London and I'll probably review those for a future post about travel in London: for now I want to look at NextBuses which works all over the country, even in Stamford. It finds nearby bus stops and lists the next few departures from them. It does help if you have a rudimentary idea of local geography and where you want to go, but it does mean that you do not have know where all the bus stops are and which buses stop at them, and you do not need to have the timetables in your head. I have used it to great effect in Peterborough, a lot slicker (and cheaper) than sending a text message to get the next departures, but again it does rely on having a data connection, usually meaning 3G when out and about.

Given that I'd be carrying a telephone anyway, all this means that with nothing extra in my pockets I am also carrying a wide range of maps and timetables, constantly updated, on all my adventures. Now, if I could find a way of carrying food and drink in an equally small space ...

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Just booked a few more trips,

 so there's scope for more posts for a little while longer yet!

Next month I'll write up our recent visit to Fontainebleau via Paris and then to follow are this year's adventures to Switzerland (at least two episodes there, probably three), North Yorkshire, Snowdonia and Dartmouth again.

Light meal on Eurostar Standard Premier class

Thursday 16 January 2014

Via Nuneaton, or via London?

Last year I was enrolled on a training course, six days in September, on the exciting topic of Transforming Church Conflict. I could write another series of articles on the course contents and a further one on why I attended it, but I’ll stick for the moment with how I travelled there. As my Rule of Life includes that I shall walk, cycle or use public transport wherever practical, my first thought was to see how convenient the venue is to the nearest railway station, the second being how easy it is to get to that station from Stamford. It was a longish walk, but not a ridiculous one, so I determined that if the trains were not too inconvenient I would go by train and walk to the venue, which was the Boys’ Brigade training centre at Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.

Now Hemel is one of the early London ring New Towns and the station, built to serve the original village, is not ever so convenient for the town centre (though I’ve known worse), but it is on the same side of the town as the place to which I was to travel. It is on the West Coast Main Line, the former LNWR line to Birmingham and the north-west, and is served by semi-fast trains between London Euston and Birmingham New Street, which also have stops at, among others, Northampton and Nuneaton. Northampton is not far away but there is no direct public transport to there from Stamford, so that was not an option; Nuneaton does have hourly trains from Stamford but the connections are more concerned with getting people to the north-west and so, given also that all the trains involved are only semi-fasts, it takes longer to travel via Nuneaton than via Peterborough and London, and so it was that, booking in advance as usual via the East Coast website, I found myself on another brief adventure. An adventure because (1) it was to a place I’d never been and (2) used trains I’d never used before. The only other train I’d ever caught from Euston was the Caledonian Sleeper described in the very first of these articles. The Birmingham semi-fasts I used to use in the seventies, but only the five miles at the other end of the line, and the service was very different in those days, too.

Departure from Stamford was on the 14:00 train to Peterborough on the Sunday of the SKDC Chairman’s Civic Service at All Saints, so the civic reception nibbles provided my light lunch, dinner being the first thing on the schedule at the training course that evening. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and the ride to London from Peterborough was delightful. I still had some preparatory reading to do for the course: huge advantage of travelling by train was that I did not have to get all this finished before I left as I’d have had to if driving. Given the amount of activity that weekend, that was just as well. For luggage I took all the week’s clothes in my wheeled case, and my briefcase has a loop on the back that slides over the extended handle of the case, so I could pull both along at once. Ideal business luggage (bought for the purpose, of course).

The advance ticket required a specific train to be used, and plenty of time was allowed for the change of station in London: it did include Underground but I did not use that as Euston is only a short walk from King’s Cross. I sat in the sunshine outside a café at Euston and drank coffee while awaiting the time for my train to Hemel Hempstead and then made my way to the platform. Not so many years ago London was very quiet on Sundays. Not any more: the station and the café were heaving with people and the train, eight high-density suburban coaches, was full. Not uncomfortably so, but anyone getting on at the last moment would have had to search hard for a seat. I was amazed. Sunday tea-time and the world seemed to be at Euston.

It was still sunny and warm when I arrived at Hemel Hempstead. A small station on a busy line and in the style of the 1960s West Coast electrification modernisation, like Euston and New Street and, also like them, slightly down-at-heel because of its age but unlike the big stations, not being refurbished. Using the maps on my smartphone I navigated my way to the training centre. There is a cross-country path but no exit to it from the station, and in any case it will have been muddy, and difficult with luggage. So I walked round via the streets and lanes and a pleasant walk it was. Not immediately clear which side of the road was going to have the footpath, and I could have done without vehicles parked on the paths here and there, but a steady pace took me up the hill towards the venue.

The hill was not steep but it was unrelenting. And the sun was shining and it was hot. And I had two cases, albeit on wheels but they still had to be lifted up the hill. Jolly good exercise. I was almost there when a passing taxi stopped and offered me a lift. It was carrying someone else for the course and she was paying - although I did provide the tip! Checked in and straight to the shower!

It was an intensive week’s work but we did get one afternoon and a couple of evenings off. On the afternoon I walked into the town centre just for fun, really, as I’d never been there. This involved a walk near to a canal and was most enjoyable. Walking back up the hill was less shower-requiring without the luggage. Both evenings were spent at a canalside pub. By now the road and the hill were becoming familiar ground.

We left the course on Friday afternoon and several of us walked (downhill!) together to the station, some heading north to Birmingham and others travelling with me to London: the train was less busy than on the Sunday afternoon and in London a few of us walked round to King’s Cross for various trains to the north. I had some time in hand because we had finished a little early and my Advance ticket required me to await my booked train. So I sat on the balcony at the King’s Cross departure area and worked on my material for the October magazine, which by now you will have read and forgotten … This works well at King’s Cross: on that level there are various places to buy food and drink but the seats are for anyone, and there is a clear view across to the departures boards without that neck-straining look up from the ground level. When your train is indicated you go across the bridge to the escalators down to the middle of the platforms for the standard class coaches, or if travelling First Class go down to the concourse and enter the platforms at ground level at the end.

And so to Peterborough and the change of train for Stamford, magazine material almost complete!

Sunday 12 January 2014

Coming soon ...

I was unsure whether my journey to and from a training course at Hemel Hempstead should count as a long or short journey but decided in the end as it did not involve any rail-borne catering it should be classed as short, so in keeping with the general policy of alternating long ands short adventures, I'll deal with this one next and will be posting it soon.

Then next month we'll be looking at a trip to France - this was a brief weekend break in Paris in order to visit family in Fontainebleau - and then we are more-or-less up-to-date pending a planned holiday in Switzerland and a day trip to Snowdonia which have yet to take place. I must travel a bit more than I have been doing or I'll soon run out of things to write about.

Further parish trips are also in the planning stage, to Oakham (easy!) and Canterbury (not so very difficult now that Kent has high speed trains from St Pancras).