Saturday 8 January 2022

Travelling with Confidence? Not So Simple!

Train travel in a time of uncertainty

Our trains are clean and air-conditioned, and face-coverings are legally mandatory, so as far as health and safety are concerned we can travel with confidence on almost any train in the UK. But making a journey by rail is not the same thing as riding on a train, and with constantly-shifting laws and government advice together with a very high infection rate leading to multiple staff shortages in all services including railways and bus services, it is not easy to plan a journey with confidence. Each railway company does its best: LNER, for example, has reduced its timetable on its Leeds and Lincoln routes in the hope that enough staff will generally be available to operate all other trains so that people can travel with LNER with confidence. The problem is that in reality people need the whole system to work together. I do not live on LNER's route and in order to travel to London or the north I have to go to Peterborough by Cross Country's Birmingham-Stansted service, so I depend on the two companies connecting smoothly. Such is the odd way Britain's rail fares work that a First Class Advance ticket for the whole journey would be ridiculously expensive, but it works well to by such a ticket for the LNER leg while buying Day Anytime Standard Class tickets for the short Cross Country leg. Last year when reservations were required for travel it was hard to be sure that seats would be available on all the required trains and we ended up occasionally using taxis to and from Peterborough, and although it is no longer as bad as that, there is now the fear that one company or the other may find itself short of a driver or guard during the pandemic and the journey fails. Fortunately, Advance tickets can be used on the next train if a planned connection does fail, so although we may be an hour late at least we would not be out-of-pocket.

As it happens we had bought tickets to visit family in London for three days after Christmas: we booked relatively late so the Advance First tickets were rather more expensive than we normally buy, but we felt that with the amount of luggage we might have and the headlines about busy trains Standard Class may not be able to offer the amount of space we would need. The First Class accommodation was pretty well fully booked, hence the fare, and our reserved seats were one behind the other, not side-by side or opposite. By the time Christmas came the panic over the "omicron" variant of the Covid-19 virus was beginning to make the trip look doubtful and we began making contingency plans for a one-day trip by car just to exchange presents and return home. Additional restrictions did not affect the trip, however, and we set out by train as planned, having done our "lateral flow" Covid tests and having heard that our hosts had also done their, with all four being negative. In the event our train form Stamford to Peterborough was on time (well, two minutes late) and the LNER connection was also running on time. There were several reserved seats which were unoccupied and so we forsook ours and sat opposite each other at a large table instead of in tandem. Refreshments were "thin" with this being the first day back at work and the train having already travelled from Edinburgh, but we were not going far and a mug of hot chocolate did nicely - we had our morning coffee between trains at the coffee lounge at the Great Northern Hotel, Peterborough, which serves as the LNER first class lounge there.

Although our train was only a couple of minutes late leaving Peterborough it was delayed in the tunnels on the approach to Kings Cross and was about ten minutes down by the time we arrived. Not a big deal, but annoying since all the work done to Kings Cross station throat a year or two ago supposed to make the station approach easier. We had two large suitcases because we were bearing gifts from other family members as well as our own for the family we were visiting, so we used the lifts at Kings Cross for step-free access to the Hammersmith & City Line platforms and set off for Shepherds Bush. Mercifully we were to bring back a lot less than we took, so my back pack which was carrying some of my personal luggage went inside one of the cases on our return.

On the one full day of our stay I went with my son and his wife and two children to The Design Museum in Kensington. The family did not stay long, having been there before, and went off to play in Holland Park, behind the museum, but I stayed and had a good look at the museum, started by the late Sir Terence Conran, an extraordinary designer whom I have long admired for bringing good design to anyone who wants it. We travelled there by bus and the museum and park visit were preceded by lunch at Wagamama in Kensington High Street. Wagamama is not a chain I have visited much before but I thoroughly enjoyed the meal there.

Apple (above) and Sinclair (right) computers

After meeting again in the park we all travelled home together by taxi, hailed using an iPhone app: Uber seems to have lost its dominance now, with a shortage of drivers apparently making it unreliable if the company increases pay to attract more drivers it will lose the price edge. I tend not to use either myself, but when the family is together a taxi can be competitive with multiple transport fares.

The following day we returned home in the afternoon, ready to greet friends who were coming to stay with us in Stamford for the next few days. Our Underground train to Kings Cross was fine, as was the train from there to Peterborough, but it was clear that the pandemic was creating staff shortages on the Cross Country route that should take us home to Stamford from Peterborough. There was no connection at Peterborough as planned, and the following train, an hour later, was not running either. There was a replacement bus but it was not due to leave until over half an hour after the train after our booked one. While the next train was running, that was the one our friends were expecting to be on, and it would get there just a few minutes after the replacement bus. We decided that to be good hosts we really needed to forsake the railway and take a taxi. This was expensive and there was no guarantee we could successfully claim any compensation from Cross Country, although I shall try.

Our friends' journey was fine, only booked on the day after all four of us had taken our lateral-flow Covid-19 tests to ensure that it was safe to meet, and when the time came for them to return home a few days later, their trains for that journey were fine, too. But there are big gaps in the timetable on our line which are not well-plugged by the replacement buses. The sooner this need for isolation ends the sooner we can start travelling again with real confidence: vaccinated and fit I am not afraid of the disease, but I am afraid of being stranded and a trip being ruined! Having said that, I am making bookings for the summer and beyond, it is just the next couple of months which are hard to book.

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