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LM Great Escape trip report [long]

Von: David Buttery (rabbiteer@gmail.com) [Profil]
Datum: 04.06.2010 20:22
Message-ID: <hubg93$s6t$1@news.eternal-september.org>
Newsgroup: uk.railway
This won't be one of the more scintillating trip reports of our time, but
I know some people like reading them anyway. (I do, for one!) This
happened yesterday, when I took a trip to St Albans, taking advantage of
London Midland's Great Escape offer. I do think that this is an excellent
promotion, and if it comes up again I'll be very tempted. I think £10 is
the right price, too: £15, say, would be that much less of an impulse
buy, and for me at least several possible destinations (eg Shrewsbury)
would no longer be cheaper than an ordinary off-peak ticket.

Actually, this one cost me £11.40! The reason was that to have a
reasonably comfortable connection I wanted to get the 09.26 out of
Kidderminster, and the GE ticket is not valid until "after 09.30". I thus
had to buy a Kidderminster-Blakedown single at £1.40 to allow the
journey. Whether that "after" should be construed as to include trains
departing at exactly 09.30 was not made clear by the terms and
conditions, but happily this particular train calls at Blakedown at 09.31!

I started out on the usual dear old 150; this time it was a 3-car train,
which was very busy (it being half-term) though not overcrowded. It was
dead on time, and there was no ticket check. The NRE personalised
timetable thingy told me to go to Moor Street and walk to New Street, but
being a lazy sort I preferred to get off at Smethwick Galton Bridge and
go straight to New St. This was the usual 323, and was two minutes late.
Averagely loaded, and again no ticket check; these are pretty rare on
this trip, I suppose because of the checks at New St.

I only paused at New St to nip to the toilet - which, slightly to my
surprise, was spotless, a very thorough cleaning job having just
finished. One of the turnstiles didn't work, though, and it took three
goes for my 10p coin to register! There seemed to be a slightly heavier
police presence at New St than is normal on a non-football day; not
oppressively so, but it was also the case when I came home in the
evening. I don't know if there was a specific reason for this - high-
visibility reassurance after the tragic events in Cumbria, perhaps?

Off then as far as Rugby on a 350, which was right on time. I was in the
front coach, which was surprisingly lightly loaded; possibly the
occasional rail users you get at half-term didn't realise that there was
more standard class seating beyond the FC section. Despite being 3+2
seating, it seemed pretty spacious and comfortable; the green seat
coverings look good. Even the air conditioning seemed quieter than the
usual ghastly roar! Tickets were checked after leaving Birmingham
International.

I only had a seven-minute connection at Rugby, but the train was a minute
or so early arriving, so there was no problem getting on another 350,
which would take me as far as Watford Junction. This had blue 2+2
seating, but it really wasn't as pleasant as the theoretically more
cramped earlier service, not helped by its being very busy (though not
quite full) after Milton Keynes Central. (Why the qualifier in its name?)
The aircon wasn't working too well, and it was slightly too warm for my
liking. Unlike the previous train, this one did have seat-back tables,
but the decent kneeroom provided means that they're a bit too far
forward. Tickets were checked on departure from Rugby. Once again, the
train was on time.

Watford Junction seems, from my brief experience of it, to be a bit of a
dump. It's rather confusingly laid out, the passageways and ticket-gate
area are a bit cramped, and one small set of toilets (gents, anyway; I
can't speak for the ladies!) for a station this size is surely
inadequate. I had to go to platform 11 for the St Albans train; this is
semi-detached from the main station, and it reminded me a bit of platform
0 (if it's still called that) at Cardiff Central. The open-air walk to it
can't be a great deal of fun in a rainstorm.

My goodness, the St Albans Abbey branch is a bit of a throwback, isn't
it? This was my first time along here, and so the jointed track startled
me, as did the half-barrier level crossing at Watford North and the
battered old Silverlink direction signs at several stations. The 321's
seating arrangements were also something I wasn't used to, with their
very open bays and silly little shelves sticking out of the walls. The
windows were rather grubby, and the unit seemed a bit noisy and tired;
actually it felt a bit like an electric version of a 150!

No ticket check, which was a shame as for most of the journey the bay in
front of me was occupied by a group of absolutely classic chav types -
who charmingly chatted to each other (with much effing and blinding)
about their friends' prison sentences (for stabbing someone, I think; I
wasn't going to enquire too closely). It really was quite unpleasant, and
a human being (staff, RPI, PCSO, anyone really) walking through the
train, even just once, would have made me feel a lot happier.

This being uk.railway, I shan't dwell on my couple of hours actually in
St Albans, except to say that I liked the mosaics from local
schoolchildren; very appropriate for a city so strongly associated with
the Romans. I enjoyed my visit and thought the pedestrian signposting
from the centre to the station was well done, though that from the
station to the city centre wasn't quite so good. I had to start back in
late afternoon, since I didn't want to get home very late in the evening.

As expected, it was the same old 321 that took me back. Why does St
Albans Abbey have such a low platform, incidentally? Yes, there's a
newish looking raised rubber bit at one end, but elsewhere it's one of
the biggest steps I've come across in a while. This trip was nicer than
the inbound one, though started oddly when a woman in an M&S fleece (an
employee's one, I mean, not just one bought from there) was told she
couldn't pay with a card - I can only assume it was an Electron/Solo -
and would have to go to the cash machine. She then approached me for
help, but was told firmly by the conductor that "you can't beg off my
other passengers" and got off. I waved my ticket at the conductor at this
point, but he didn't check it formally.

The above delayed our departure by a couple of minutes. I had a rather
longer wait at Watford Junction this time, so went out onto the concourse
hoping to find some decent food - I don't know the local area and didn't
have time to explore, so needed somewhere actually in the station. No
such luck; it's a small, cramped place with a tiny WH Smith stall and not
much else. The little coffee/snack stall at platform level seemed to be
unattended, though it didn't look closed. I had a leftover chocolate bar
from St Albans anyway, so ate that instead!

Next up, yet another 350 (of the 2+2 type), which would convey me right
through to New Street. This was full and standing, but not unbearably so;
I got a seat at Berkhamsted, though it didn't line up with the window,
and as the man in front had used one of the jacket hooks I could barely
see outside at all! It was surprisingly peaceful given the load, with
nobody listening to loud music or (with one short exception) braying into
phones.

This journey took just over two hours, and frankly it felt it. There were
a couple of 10-15 minute stops (at Leighton Buzzard and Northampton),
presumably to allow Virgin trains past. We could clearly have done the
trip at least 20 minutes quicker without that hanging around. We also had
a five-minute (signal?) hold somewhere around Hampton-in-Arden, which
seems to happen every second time I travel on this route. This was the
only train with two ticket checks: one after Northampton and one after
Rugby - but then nothing. Presumably because of the signal(?) hold, we
were five minutes late into New St.

The Smethwick connections didn't favour going back the way I came (the
train that would have been perfectly timed was ATW, so no use to me), so
this time I walked to Moor St. This was the one place I had (minor)
barrier problems with the GE ticket: I showed it to the woman on duty and
said, "I don't think this will work the barrier". She told me that it
should and asked me to try it. As I expected, it was rejected, so I was
then let through after a visual check. I overhead the woman saying
something like, "It's those Great Escape tickets. I don't like them!"
Okay, Moor St isn't operated by LM, but you'd have thought they must have
had plenty of GE holders using it this week!

The last train of the day, the 150 back to Kidderminster, was also the
least satisfactory. For a start, it had only two coaches, inadequate for
a train going this way (and on to Worcester), especially on a sunny half-
term evening. Three would have made quite a difference, as it was full
and standing until Stourbridge Junction. The conductor had a strong
subcontinental accent and was rather inclined to mumble (not good
considering that 150s don't have great loudspeakers at the best of
times). He also referred to "Stourbridge" (meaning Junction, but would
occasional travellers know that?) and "Worcester Foregate" [sic], and
pronounced "Jewellery Quarter" as, roughly, "Jewry Kwah-tuh".

So... overall, not bad going. No train was more than five minutes late,
and all but one no more than two, though the combination of 350s and an
apparently very slack timetable between Watford Jct and Birmingham means
that it would have been pretty poor had those trains not done well.
Despite its being half term, no train was unbearably crowded. With that
one minor exception at Moor St, the GE ticket was universally recognised
at once both on trains and at stations, including non-LM stations such as
Watford Jct. I certainly feel that I got my tenner's worth.

--
Bewdley, Worcs. 90m asl.

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