SUNDAY 12 JANUARY 2020
There are countless reasons why on my latest trip ‘home’ to Gibraltar I decided to spend the night before my flight in London. First, the need to wake at 2 a.m. and drive the nearly-200 miles to Gatwick Airport would be removed, since a more leisurely 4 a.m. alarm call would be required and a shorter hour-long journey aboard a Thameslink service from central London to the Airport would be all that was needed; and second, I’d also avoid the need to physically drive the long distance from home in Lincolnshire and pay for airport parking.
Requiring a room in central London on a Sunday evening – the day of the week that hoteliers typically find hardest to patronise – ensured I was offered a fantastic deal on a single room (£39). It came with breakfast but my early departure, sadly, meant I’d be unable to partake. All was set fair, then, for the first part of my journey.
Sadly I’d not taken into account the railway network. While planning the trip, I’d considered driving to Nottingham and travelling with EMR to London via the Midland Main Line, except that was closed between Wellingborough and Bedford, with replacement buses shuttling folk between the two localities. I’d end up travelling on a rammed two-coach, Norwich-bound Class 158 to Grantham and then catching a LNER service thenceforth.
Yet problems existed here, too, with the ECML south of Peterborough closed. All services were diverting via Ely and Cambridge. This added an extra hour to the journey time but worse still was that LNER was not advertising it possible to make the journey from Peterborough to London King’s Cross with them. Instead, passengers were told via online journey planners and the Travel Centre to board either the hourly EMR Norwich service or CrossCountry’s hourly Stansted Airport train and change at Ely for Great Northern’s half-hourly offering to London, which would join the ECML at Hitchin.
As if to add insult to injury, a replacement bus service was also offered between Peterborough and Huntingdon and others were only standby to offer additional capacity to Ely should the station become overrun with ad hoc travellers bound for The Smoke. Admission enough that the broad plan of sending everyone via existing services to Ely was inadequate.
Using one of the real-time journey planners in ‘detailed’ mode, I noticed that LNER’s reduced service to/from London was also running via Ely and Cambridge and that its southbound services were in fact calling at Peterborough but as ‘set down only’, meaning they weren’t shown in journey planners nor were the station's information screens advertising this most obvious of ways to reach London.
Faced with the dog’s breakfast of alternatives, I decided to board a set down-only service at 1904. This was booked to use Platform 4 and upon my arrival there at 1845 I was a little surprised to see the locality bustling with activity. LNER staff appeared to have gained authorisation to board we 50-60 souls on this due service, thus sparing a coach driver the hassle and EMR/CrossCountry from leaving folk behind when their already busy trains were scheduled to leave.
The stealth 1904 departure duly arrived late (it caught up a late-running Grand Central train after Doncaster) but fortuitously was formed of two 5-car Azumas. Sadly, the leading unit (800206) was the wrong way round and so those wanting to make use of First Class were stood in the wrong place. The trailing unit (800209) was at least pointing in the right direction (First Class at the London end) though the first two coaches, of which First Class formed 75%, were ‘full and standing’, to quote railway parlance After much squeezing past people and their belongings in the aisle, I found a seat in Standard in what I suppose was coach eight of 10.
Dealing with this kind of load would have been far easier had it been possible to walk through the full length of the train, though sadly LNER has succumbed to two different trains through which continuous passage is not possible. I understand that when this configuration is booked, a Senior Host is located in the front unit with Revenue Protection; the rear unit is home to the Train Manager.
As I sat in cramped conditions, with elbows of all who passed by inadvertently jabbing me in the shoulder, the trolley service being unable to pass through the coach due to the number of standees, the journey duration owing to a line blockade in the Holme area and the high number of people travelling on a reduced service – not helped by the part-closure of the MML, I did muse on the benefit of the alternative: having next to no sleep tonight before the 2 a.m. alarm call and the 200-mile drive to the airport. Yes I’d be rather fatigued, but at least I’d be in the comforting surroundings of my own home and car.
I stayed at The King’s Cross Hotel, located at 60 Argyle Street. It is a budget hotel and the room for one night’s stay cost £39. The hotel had a positivity rating of 75% and was rated two out of 3 possible stars. Its convenience was excellent and upon check-in the receptionist ‘upgraded’ me to a double room, rather than my booked single. The room itself was a little cramped, but the en suite was decent enough and there was a pack of complimentary biscuits, which is more than you get from some of the big name no-frills hoteliers.
With the short days, the extended journey time and the winter temperature, it felt a little later than it was after I’d dropped my things off in the room, so I headed back out for a wander.
MONDAY 20 JANUARY 2020
My 3.45 a.m. alarm call was sufficient to negate the need for my snooze alarm five minutes later and by 4.10 a.m. I had dropped my keys off at the 24-hour reception and headed to St. Pancras International station. Confusingly, the main entrance on Euston Road implied the station was closed. The obvious entrance had two large gates pulled across, though this was actually to signal that its subterranean Underground station was closed. I headed down Panrcas Road and sure enough the side entrance was open and the Eurostar check-in lounge was a throng of activity.
Ticket barriers were in operation at St. Pancras though the EMR-operated ticket office was closed. I’d been fortunate enough to purchase my ticket from Peterborough’s booking office the day before and knowing the ticket vending machines don’t sell the full range of available tickets, I did wonder what the situation was for someone requiring a ‘specialist’ ticket.
Platform A, two floors beneath the main concourse, was very quiet. The silence was broken by the mobile (‘dynamic’?) announcer doing an audio test on his hand-held microphone; yet he didn’t make use of it to announce the arrival of my train (700004), comprising eight very quiet coaches. The driver, for the Thameslink/Great Northern network is DOO (driver only operated), announced some dwell time here before we departed punctually at 4.32 a.m.
Simplicity. Or basic. The interior of the Thameslink/Great Northern Class 700 trains were 'designed by a man', as my mother would say, and are devoid of charging points and Wi-Fi. Seats are pretty uncomfortable, too. Clearly their design has been maximised for capacity, with longitudinal seating, though for longer journeys which many passengers make (Huntington-London, for example), this design is not practical.
We arrived punctually at Gatwick Airport an hour later and access to the airport is very straightforward since the railway station is adjacent to the South Terminal. My flight, EYZ8901, would be departing from the North Terminal, which required a trip aboard the ‘free transit’ autonomous people mover, which operates approximately every five minutes, linking both terminals.
This journey is the first time that I’ve not printed out my boarding pass; instead, and inspired by others on my previous trip, I checked in and downloaded my boarding pass through the easyJet app. I’d taken a screenshot of the pass in case there was an issue opening the app when needed, but the whole process was faultless. Give easyJet, Ryanair et al there due, they have significantly simplified the whole boarding process.
My rule of thumb for making lengthy journeys is that I allow myself to be fleeced once. On this trip this took take place in Departures when I shelled out £3.00 for a latte before heading to Gate 559 for boarding. The couple in front of me were attempting to take two bags each onto the plane, which was spotted and they were segregated before having to decide which bag they’d each like to have stowed in the luggage compartment for an additional fee. It demonstrates that no matter how simplistic budget airlines make their booking and boarding processes, there are some who will always be caught out.
The complimentary papers were most welcome though they extended to the FT, the i and Metro, the latter of course having no price tag. A selection of glossy magazines seemed to interest more people and I picked up a copy of the New Statesman for some in-flight reading.
Heading to the departure gate my plane could be seen being prepared for the flight to Gibraltar.
After I’d booked my flight and paid a little extra to choose my seat, I received an email from easyJet to say my booked plane type had changed, though my seat choice was still available and so they’d retained this for me. I now discovered what had happened: presumably due to lower demand than anticipated, my booked Airbus A320 had been downgraded to an A319, offering fewer seats and in theory fewer cabin crew, though there was a healthy five on board, all exceptionally attentive and fine ambassadors for their profession. It’s easy to see why other passenger transport sectors try to train their staff to emulate those working for the airlines.
Push back commenced at 7.04 a.m., delayed slightly as only one set of steps was available and we all boarded through the front door. The Airbus A319 has 31 rows, each comprising 6 seats lettered A to F. I had chosen seat 30F and the two next to me (30D & 30E) remained empty throughout, as did all seats in row 31 and two seats in row 29. I estimated the plane carried a maximum of 176 passengers. January is the quietest time for year for easyJet journeys to and from Gibraltar; the company doesn’t fly there on Wednesdays - the day I was to return - and the reason for my return flight being with BA.
Empty seats aboard an easyJet flight to Gibraltar are very uncommon, especially on the Gatwick route. January, though, is the quietest month it would seem.
We made good time and circled Gibraltar before landing so I was able to get some nice photos of The Rock from the air. I also captured one of the runway as the plane was lining up to land. It certainly looked rather short from a mile or so out! As I captioned it to my friends, it’s wet at both ends.
Gibraltar's runway can be seen in the distance. It looks alarmingly short and wet at both ends!
WEDNESDAY 15 JANUARY 2020
Three days and two nights later I prepared for home. There can be few places where it is possible to board a bus to the airport from the city centre at 4 p.m. and be the other side of airport security seventeen minutes later! This is what I managed to achieve on departure day. My Calypso Transport single-decker departed the Market Place at 4 p.m. and having checked in online with BA the day before, I headed straight for security and was airside by 4.17 p.m. Wonderful.
British icons, side by side. And the weather typically fined up as I was leaving.
My Airbus A320 touched down a little ahead of schedule and ten minutes later was joined by a similar Airbus product operated by easyJet, which was bound for Manchester. My BA flight is the daily departure headed for Heathrow and was due to depart at 5.20 p.m.; the easyJet service to Manchester was due out after ours at 5.35 p.m., yet due to the vagaries of Air Traffic Control systems, we would not be allocated a ‘slot’ until thirty minutes after our booked departure time. Of course, this didn’t affect the Mancunian flight to our right, which left before us. One of the crew tried to explain that the delay was due to our planned arrival time in Heathrow and that 30 minutes was a worst-case scenario, though in the end we departed 30 minutes late.
Some days even in January BA operates two flights per day from Gibraltar to Heathrow. Leather seating is used as standard in BA's planes to/from Gibraltar and I found myself fortunate to be sat by some empty seats for my return trip, too.
The previous two nights I’d recorded this plane’s departure and it never left punctually; though today’s was the latest by far. Once airborne the steward working the first class section towards the front drew the curtain. This always makes me giggle. I suppose I can see why there is a need to do it, but seeing it in full flow makes me roll my eyes.
It soon became dark as we headed north over Spain. Similar to my outward flight, I was fortunate in having no-one booked to sit next to me. When I checked-in I was afforded seat 18A for ‘free’ though the rear third of the plane on both sides seemed unreserved and BA cheerily offered me any of these seats for £17. I’m glad I didn’t take up their offer!
I do enjoy travelling with BA (when their flights are competitively priced). There is a certain ambiance that the other airlines can’t quite achieve and the stewards are impeccably turned out. The safety announcement was pre-recorded and involved a number of A-list celebrities being rather humerous in their delivery of what is otherwise mundane material. It looked as though it was done in partnership with a charity and Comic Relief for any unwanted currency. The wonderful thing about visiting Gibraltar is that you never have any unwanted currency as you avoid the need to visit a bureau de change!
We arrived at Heathrow just five minutes behind schedule, which prompted a suspicion I had that our 5.25 p.m. departure from Gibraltar was always in the balance as generous flight time had been afforded us in much the same way as railway schedules afford train operators padding between penultimate and final stations. Peterborough to London King’s Cross is reached in just over 50 minutes for LNER non-stop services, whereas northbound the journey generally takes just 45 minutes.
I then made the long walk to the station where I boarded the Heathrow Express to London Paddington. I’d never travelled on the HEX before and purchased my ticket from a roving salesperson. The ticket offices were closed. Access to the platform is via a choice of lifts. TfL Rail shares the platform with HEX and trains arrive in between one another. Regular announcements are made to inform passengers that tickets are not interchangeable. What wasn’t announced was that my train would be shortformed (just one unit - 332010) so my fellow passengers and I had to walk a fair way to board as HEX drivers are instructed to stop at the end of the platform regardless of how long their train is.
332010 is seen at Heathrow Terminal 3 station, bound for Paddington.
I did smile to myself at the constant manual announcements made by ‘dynamic’ assistants – most were reasonably pointless – yet when details could have been made to aid the boarding process and reduce excess dwell time, it was overlooked. The journey was otherwise straightforward enough and we reached Paddington punctually. Significant information was given on board to the reviewed boarding process in the Capital, now that HEX is afforded just one platform and boarding is required to be rather swift, with passengers aided by platform assistants (both GWR and HEX from my observations).
After brief pit stop I caught a bus to King’s Cross in the form of Stagecoach London’s 12342 (SN64 OGR), an ADL E40H/ADL Enviro400 Hybrid. The bus was punctual but my debit card didn’t activate the ticket machine as I boarded. The driver waved me on but I instinctively suggested to him that it hadn’t read my card. He begrudgingly looked at his machine while at the same time I noted the card reader display in more detail. It was showing ‘Not In Service’. The driver pressed a few buttons and gestured I try again. Success. It’s fortunate that I questioned his initial command as a Revenue Protection Officer board mid-journey and I had to tap her manual card reader to prove I’d touched in. The journey was otherwise eventful, though the engine cut-off didn’t happen once.
Once at King’s Cross by 9.10 p.m. I discovered I’d caught the tail end of earlier disruption. I could have caught the delayed 9 p.m. LNER to Newcastle, though details of its platform had just been made and there was something of a stampede. Instead the 2130 Leeds was boarding on Platform 7. Formed of two 5-car all-electric Class 801 Azumas (801208/13) I boarded the rear-most unit (801208) and had a very smooth and punctual run to Peterborugh, calling at Stevenage en route.
Fortunately the outward disruption due to planned engineering work at Holme was long forgotten and as I sipped my glass of white wine as we hurtled along the ECML at 125 mph I did muse very positively on my time away. Even the lengthy diversion via Cambridge on Sunday aboard a train I shouldn't have been able to catch was punctual into London. The Thameslink train to Gatwick ran to time, both flights arrived punctually at their destinations (though the BA flight did touch down five minutes late) and you're never waiting long for a bus in Gibraltar.