09 September 2012

My Virgin Trains Farewell Tour (part 1)

Although as I write the chances of a Judicial Review into the way the Department for Transport awarded the Intercity West Coast franchise to FirstGroup is a possibility, I've got two days over the next month in which I'm able to make good use of the West Coast Main Line, travelling between London and Glasgow with Virgin Trains. This blogpost forms part 1 of 2 and as with our Top 'n' Tail 2009 jaunt (John o'Groats to Land's End as quickly and cheaply as possible) the journey itself is only half the story.

Thanks to a friend who works for National Express driving on their scheduled coach network, I have recently been officially issued with his Nominated Persons pass, allowing free travel on the NX network. This was instrumental in my Virgin Farewell Tour part 1 as I was to travel overnight from London to Glasgow and catch Virgin Trains back the following morning.

However, in order to do any of this I needed to get to London. This involved travelling with England's oldest bus company, Delaine Buses and Britain's only nationalised train operating company, East Coast. I caught the latter from Peterborough where my first moan begins:

I've travelled from Peterborough to London by train on a number of occasions over the past few years and ever since King's Cross has had automatic ticket gates installed, they're never operational after the evening peak. Now Peterborough has them and when I returned from my most recent trip to London by train, they were all open in the evening, too. I paid £29.60 for my Off-Peak Day Single with East Coast and knew the barriers would be open at Peterborough station when I arrived to catch the 2046 train to London (1E24) and that they'd almost certainly be too at King's Cross upon my arrival. And that there'd almost certainly be no ticket check on the southbound journey either.

In the latest LEYTR magazine, readers will have spotted I made a trip to York to attend Railfest 2012 from Peterborough and for the first time printed my ticket off at home. Ticket gates weren't operational at Peterborough in June and aren't going to be installed at York and not once was my ticket checked. It's a very poor show indeed. It was also repeated on Tuesday evening when I headed to London. The temptation must be so strong for people not necessarily ticket cheats to simply board a First Capital Connect train to London in the evening (who don't even have a conductor) and save almost £25 on that service. I get the impression the rail industry isn't too bothered about this kind of fare evasion, pricing day return fares at just 10p more than singles. So, for every single fare sold, they are only 10p out of pocket for every equivalent single fare evaded.

However, aboard the Class 91 propelled service to London all was fine. I opted once again for the Quiet Coach where everyone was being quiet. This is becoming commonplace! We ran punctually to King's Cross, arriving 2 minutes ahead of schedule, although 2 minutes late according to the Working Timetable. 91132 was providing traction, while 82228 was driving.

Shaking my head and tutting as I walked through the open ticket gates, I made my way to somewhere that I knew took fare evasion more seriously - London Underground. Here, thanks to Union pressure, the company has to man stations for as long as they're open. This makes eminent sense at King's Cross St. Pancras, but is also enforced at all other stations, too. Insufficient staff is, I believe, the reason train operating companies give for opening their ticket gates. Of course, Network Rail TOCs don't benefit from being bankrolled by the state - except the very one I'd just travelled with, that is.

Reasonably quiet on the Underground - in the leading coach of a Victoria Line service to Brixton.

I've become accustom to the best carriage to travel in on the Victoria Line south to Victoria station. As near the front as possible, ensuring as fast an exit as possible. It worked well today as the carriage was very quiet, too. In Victoria I made the two-block walk to the Victoria Coach Station, which was a hive of activity at this time of night. I'd booked myself on the Bruce's Coaches-operated Service 588 to Inverness - the longest scheduled coach service in the UK now the 336 (Edinburgh-Plymouth) no longer extends to/from Penzance. But I'd travelled on this service before at the start of the Top 'n' Tail and had considered showing my Nominated Persons pass to the driver of the Stuart's of Carluke-operated Service 592 if something more interesting (or less patronised!) turned up.

As it happened, Bruce's Coaches was using FJ57 KHU, one of their usual tri-axle Scania/Levante coaches with just 53 seats, so additional leg room is afforded and is very welcome for such a long journey. The registration made me titter as it's 'Forest & Fens' based and the last three letters could indicate Kingston upon Hull, yet it operates Anglo-Scottish coach services for a Scottish operator for almost all of its life (it was new to NX-owned ops in 11/07 and passed to Bruce's once they acquired additional work from Stagecoach in Caithness (Rapsons) and First Devon & Cornwall). It was one of the first coaches Bruce's operated for NX that wasn't a Bova. By contrast, a Bova was being used on the Service 592 in full Stuart's of Carluke livery. I'm not keen on Bovas and SF10 GXK had 53 seats like Bruce's FJ57 KHU but the clincher for me was the lack of an air con pod on the roof. It might be that Bovas have this fitted elsewhere, but for an eight-hour overnight journey, I want the internal temperature to be controllable, so opted for my booked 588.

There were only 24 on when we and the 592 left together at 2300. The 592 is booked to operate the fastest London-Glasgow journey NX offer, in 8:10, while my 588 took 8:15 and continued north to Inverness via Perth and Aviemore. Curiously, the scrolling destination on my 588 included such destinations at Toddington and Abington - both motorway services and we didn't even call at the former. Neither are bookable destinations with National Express either. A little perplexing - or was it Bruce's Coaches sticking two fingers up at the silly NX ruling that at least one via point is shown with the ultimate destination. It is one of those bonkers decisions taken by someone who can't drive a coach and the end result is that you make everything more complicated as the destination displays become too cluttered and, besides, NX only ever deals with service numbers - and this extends to their e-tickets printed off and used by passengers.

The 588 operated via Golders Green, Milton Keynes Coachway, Penrith and Lockerbie, while the 592 departing at the same time called only at Glasgow. Both services had a duo of drivers and ours were typical dour Scotsmen. I've genuinely got no complaint about how they were, but if you weren't aware of how dour the Scots can be you'd be a little surprised. I was very impressed when the second driver asked someone to turn their music down they were listening to on their headphones "because it's a night-time service, ya'noe?" However, his attention should have been drawn to the manner in which the entire rear portion of the left-hand overhead rack was rattling like hell. It really was intolerable and I'd resigned myself to having no sleep at all tonight except as soon as we got onto the M1 it stopped - and never returned! It was as if someone was looking down on me.

Feeling blurry-eyed at Charnock Richard Services at 0315. We joined the 2230 Service 592 (Park's tri-axle Volvo/Plaxton) and the other Glasgow-bound 2300 departure, Stuart's Service 592 (VDL/Bova).

We had a 20-minute break at Charnock Richard Services from 0310-0330 and then onto Lockerbie (no one got on/off at Penrith) and we had a second stop at Abington Services on the A74(M) at around 0530. I thought this was a little late in the journey to have a second stop, since we were in Scotland and had no more stops until Glasgow - and we were only given 10 minutes. I can't remember many people taking up this offer to use the loo. We arrived in Glasgow a little earlier than 0715, at 0700, and onward passengers were told to be back on the coach for 0725.

Very shocked to see the old-style 'A to B' National Express logo given pride of place in Glasgow Buchanan Street Coach station. 

It was my first overnighter on a coach since the erstwhile 336 from Edinburgh to Penzance and I'm starting to think that I'm getting too old for them now. Despite the generous leg room, I struggled to get comfortable. I hung around taking some photos until 0730 and then headed off into the city, ultimately bound for Glasgow Central station.


They're the longest rigid vehicles allowed on British roads. Measuring 15 meters, they're quite a length. Stagecoach operates most of this length of vehicle in Scotland and on its Megabus network throughout the UK. A number of Citylink vehicles are however operated by Park's of Hamilton.


Seen outside Central station is this VDL/Wrightbus single decker, wearing Arriva livery but now operated by McGill's, following a recent take-over, which was coincidentally cleared by the Competition Commission days before I visited Glasgow.

I bid farewell to my home for the past 8 hours. When we caught this service during the Top 'n' Tail jaunt, both drivers left the coach at a roundabout north of the motorway 15 minutes after leaving Glasgow and one driver took over, driving the coach the remainder of the way to Inverness.The scrolling destination listing Milton Keynes and Penrith could actually CONFUSE passengers here.

A trip to Glasgow cannot pass without making use on the world's third-oldest subterranean railway. The Glasgow Subway has been dubbed the Clockwork Orange for a number of reasons, and I reviewed the network a couple of years ago. I paid the very reasonable £1.20 for a single journey and caught train 102 from Buchanan Street to St Enoch, which looking at the map is just one stop away. Naturally, I used the Inner Circle so did an almost entire circuit in the opposite direction. It is a fascinating subway to ride - a dinky version of the London Underground. In 1996 I was lucky enough to visit Granada Studios and walk down Coronation Street. Initially I refused to accept this was THE actual street used in one of the world's most popular TV soap operas, but upon vigorous inspection of all episodes immediately afterwards, can confirm it was. Granada build the set two-thirds the actual size and use wide-angle lenses when filming. This is most evident when you compare a parked car to the size of the houses along Coronation Street, for the car is standard size. Well, the Clockwork Orange is not dissimilar to this.

The female driver doesn't control the train at all, as can be seen in the above video.

Amidst a little drizzle I walked up from St. Enoch station to Central Station in order to catch the train I'd endured an overnigher for - the 0840 Virgin Trains to London Euston.

390009 was to be my train to London, departing at 0840.

The diagram for the train working this journey (VW942) is reasonably light for the usually hard-working Class 390 'Pendolino' trains that ply their trade along the West Coast Main Line. The set departed Alstom's Polmadie depot at 0759 and travelled empty as 5M09 to Glasgow Central for 0815. It then left with me on board at 0840 as 1M09 to London Euston for 1307 and returned north at 1430 to Glasgow Central as 1S71 for 1912 before returning to Polmadie depot at 1931 as 5S71 for 1946 and covered a total of 806 miles.

A reasonably quiet Glasgow Central station, though most local activity was happening at the other end of the station.

As I walked onto Platform 1 at Glasgow Central a Virgin Trains employee was stood at the entrance by the 'information' sign, and it later transpired that this was the guard for the journey. I was impressed he was stood welcoming passengers and availing himself to anyone who wanted information. This can, of course, help him out in the long run, by ensuring those with advance tickets for a later service do not catch his by mistake and for there to be lots of animosity on board when they're stung for a £100+ fare. That's assuming they query their ticket in the first place, though. This guard also collected mine and others' used breakfast plates in First Class to kill some time. It was very impressive to see him 'mucking in' - and quite the opposite of East Coast's guard on the 2046 from Peterborough the evening before. I have the upmost respect for all train guards/conductors, but so many have the tendency to be last on/first off; to breeze through the train once and never to be seen again.

Two local liveries in evidence here, from inside Coach H of a Pendolino: Strathclyde Partnership for Transport and ScotRail. The former looks very dated indeed, though many prefer the traditional look.

Our service departed on time at 0840 and ran punctually throughout Cumbria and into Lancashire, calling at Carlisle, Penrith and Lancaster before a crew change at Preston. We were served hot drinks and a choice of toast/pastries for breakfast almost immediately. An option for juice also existed. Naturally, when travelling in First Class, you take full advantage of everything you're offered so I didn't turn anything down. The breakfast options were listed over the public address system and I opted for the full English breakfast. Sadly, this is not all it used to be, owing, I understand, to the original menu being difficult to prepare, serve and collect on the shorter London-Birmingham journeys. So, out went the fried bread and beans, but what is served today is very tasty indeed.

The service was attentive and considerate. There was no let-up on the number of times tea and coffee were offered. All very good. From Preston we called at Wigan North Western and Warrington Bank Quay before the non-stop 178.3-mile journey bound for London Euston. We departed Warrington 2 minutes late and were held north of Tring, notching up a delay of 7 minutes at Harrow & Wealdstone and arrived into Euston at 1312 - five minutes late. Except it wasn't, as the 1307 arrival was according to the Working Timetable - the public timetable showed 1312, so we technically arrived on time. That said, I can't think any others on board were equipped with the Working Timetable and so would have been contented with their 'punctual' arrival.

South of Warrington the drinks trolley came round and I found myself with a G&T before noon! The sandwich options weren't as good as they were - during the 2005 Railrover I enjoyed brie and red grape sandwiches, but today had to make do with cream cheese and cucumber. They were still very nice, as were the expensive crisps and weird-looking cookie. And pretzels. And more tea. And a can of London Pride.

Will this all continue under FirstGroup's tenure? I suspect not, though to be fair, Virgin Trains had made it known that they planned to cut in order to meet the new terms of their franchise. For example, Virgin had planned on removing one First Class coach and replacing it with Standard seating. With one less First coach, it would undoubtedly mean fewer staff needed to cater therein.

I headed to the full-size subway and caught another Victoria Line train to Victoria station and headed over once again to Victoria Coach Station to catch my next service - National Express Service 448 to Grimsby at 1400, though I'd be leaving at Peterborough at 1620.

I had to research Gray Line as part of me felt it was owned by Stagecoach (or at least I remembered seeing 'Part of the Stagecoach Group' written below its name when visiting New York in 2008). Gray Line is a separate company, though Stagecoach operates its New York Sightseeing Tours. From what I can gather, they're the parent company of Golden Tours - the newest London Sightseeing Tour bus company, using converted open-top ex-London Dennis Tridents/Alexander ALX400s.

Back in London Victoria Coach Station, my coach was a little busier than last night's 588 to Inverness. Over 30 were on board as we left. And despite the bog-standard leg room, the leather seats were a marked improvement on those found within Bruce's Coaches's Scania/Levante last night. I suspect I could have fallen to sleep easier on this Plaxton Elite-bodied Volvo B9R.

Visible (just) is our driver, Ronnie, who coincidentally has featured once on the blog - Showbus 2009. Not "via Peterborough" on the destination. The majority of this journey is BEYOND Peterborough, thus making the destination display inaccurate for the majority of the route.

There were issues in the Brent Cross area with a burst water main causing havoc and this was causing traffic chaos in Golders Green. It took us over 20 minutes to enter, load and leave the station - woefully inadequate for the size of the coaches that use it. We headed north to Temple Fortune and thence via the A1 to Fiveways Corner and towards Edgware, avoiding Brent Cross completely. We arrived into Peterborough 30 minutes late at 1650. It was still an enjoyable journey and the air conditioning was working well.

Total miles covered are as follows:

76.4 - Peterborough to London (East Coast)
406.7 - London to Glasgow (National Express 588)
397.6 - Glasgow to London (Virgin Trains)
85.0 - London to Peterborough (National Express 448)

965.7 - TOTAL

Part 2 of my Virgin Trains Farewell Tour will take place in October.


NMcB said...

Great blog - but not sure that the Victoria line gets quite so far south as Brixham !

LEYTR said...

Well spotted. I shall amend accordingly!

Anonymous said...

If only all our passengers gave us respect I wouldn't be helping to have them prosecuted for foul abusive language and threats threats to harm. Never mind!
Great blog and a fascinating journey.

Anonymous said...

I find that not being able to serve a proper full english breakfast due to some routes being a shorter distance quite a poor excuse from VT. East Midlands Trains have dedicated crew, including chef's, employed solely to provide several breakfast trains on services comparible in distance and duration to that of VT. EMT's breakfast is freshly cooked onboard using ingredients delivered daily and not pre-cooked like many TOC's use, yet they still have time to prepare each breakfast from scratch. Their excellent breakfast service has been recognised by local media, and at only £9.95 including choice of starter, main, toast, coissants and preserves is well worth the money and experience for anyone travelling on EMT breakfast trains.

PS. I'm sure an article on the choice and difference in catering provided by TOC's would be very interesting if you ever got chance to do one.

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