Monday, 10 August 2009

In Retrospect: The All-Line Rover Awards

So, having had some time to look back over my travels, there are some things I'd like to praise, and others I'd like to decry. Mainly, however, for those of you not wishing to read the entire blog, this is intended as a summary of everything that I did. First, here's a brief summary of the routes I covered each day:

Day 1: London - Liverpool - Norwich - London
Day 2: London - Newcastle - Edinburgh - Aberdeen - Glasgow
Day 3: Glasgow - (sleeper train) - London - Bristol - Weymouth - London
Day 4: London - Penzance - Exeter - Exmouth
Day 5: Exmouth - Exeter - Salisbury - Cardiff - Crewe - London
Day 6: London - Wrexham - Holyhead - Llandudno Jct - Blaenau Ffestiniog - Porthmadog - Fairbourne
Day 7: Rest day in Fairbourne
Day 8: Fairbourne - Machynlleth - Shrewsbury - Swansea - London
Day 9: London - Gatwick Airport - London - Leicester - Stansted Airport - London
Day 10: London - York (National Railway Museum) - Sheffield - London
Day 11: London - Manchester - Leeds - Carlisle - Glasgow
Day 12: Glasgow - Lancaster - Barrow-in-Furness - Carlisle - Glasgow
Day 13: Rest day in Glasgow
Day 14: Glasgow - Fort William - Glasgow

Over the course of 14 days, I spent 4 days, 12 hours and 1 minute on trains. That's over a third of my life on trains, for two weeks. Imagine this: instead of working 9-5 everyday, travel on trains 9-5 every day for two weeks. Many people would regard that as a form of torture: I really enjoyed it.

In that time, I covered no fewer than 5622.75 miles. Given that Land's End to John O'Groats is 840 miles, I really did go up and down the length of the country several times over. The farthest north I got was Aberdeen, the farthest east was Norwich, and the farthest south and west was Penzance.

Had I paid every time for walk-up tickets, I would have paid £1,113.20. I actually paid just £429 for the ticket, plus £38 for the sleeper berth - considerably less than half. The walk-up prices would have been considerably higher if I'd made more early starts; only once did I end up on a peak-time ticket out of London. Nevertheless, the ticket really does represent incredible value, at just 7.6p per mile.

As a final statistic, lest anyone think that British trains are slow, for the whole time I was on trains I averaged 52.1mph - nothing to be sniffed at. As a more ridiculous figure, for the duration of the validity of the ticket, I averaged 16.7mph, even when I wasn't moving!


First, some more frivolous awards:

Funniest Announcement: Heard at Victoria station on Day 9: "The next train to depart from platform 11 will be the 11:11 Southern service to London Bridge..." - the proliferation of "eleven" made me laugh, anyway.

Worst Announcement: The announcements on the East Midlands Trains service from Sheffield to London on Day 10 were quite overbearing: telling anyone with an advance-purchase ticket for the wrong train that "your ticket is invalid, and you will need to purchase a completely new ticket" was technically correct, but far too threatening. It's little things like that which mean people turn away from using trains.

Best Noise: The acceleration of the Class 465s, one of the main classes of electric train used on suburban routes south of London: the electric whine as it moves up through the gears is very satisfying.

Busiest Train: If we open this to the Underground, then nothing can ever beat the Northern Line train I took from London Bridge to Bank on the morning of Day 2: it was crammed, Japanese-style. If we don't allow that, and we disregard the many peak-time services between London and New Beckenham that I was on, then the busiest was probably the little two-car train from Glasgow to Fort William: it was the only train outside London on which people were forced to stand.

Emptiest Train:
This one's easy: the Stansted Express on Day 9 was incredibly empty. So too was the London-Nottingham HST I was on earlier that day; both had eight carriages when three carriages would still have given us two seats each.

Best Station Café:
The Camden Food Co. A hands-down winner on quality, selection, ambience, and price. Simply superb; find them at seven London terminals plus Birmingham New Street.

Best Staff Member:
The attendant on the Caledonian Sleeper was very nice and made sure that my first experience of a sleeper train was as relaxing as possible.

Most Disorienting Feeling:
Waking up, getting dressed, getting off the train, and walking onto Euston station concourse at 7:40am, in the morning sunshine, before the commuter rush had really started. Sleeper trains are weird. (See Night 2.)

Most Enjoyable Day:
Without a doubt this was Day 6, the longest day in terms of time (though not distance). The circuit of North Wales was exhilarating for two reasons: one, the scenery was superb, and two, it had the potential to go disastrously wrong (there were some very tight connections!) but ended up all being fine.

Now, the big awards:

Best Overall Experience: All things considered, the ride on the Settle and Carlisle (on Day 11) was probably the best train journey I've ever made. Great scenery, comfortable seats, excellent visibility, the train went at just the right speed for photography, and the staff were friendly. If there had been a trolley service it would have been perfect.

Worst Overall Experience: Without doubt the Stansted Express (on Day 9) was the worst train I've ever been on. The ride was appalling - I could barely keep my fingers on the right keys on my laptop. The seats were uncomfortable, the tables were too high, the legroom was too generous, and the staff were non-existent. As for the service, it was empty, probably because it's too slow.

Best Station:

1st: London St Pancras - A sight to behold: probably the best station in the world, with a great range of shops, fantastic places to eat (especially the Camden Food Co!), and an eye-opening range of destinations, from Sheffield to Brussels. (See Day 9.)

2nd: Manchester Piccadilly - A 92% satisfaction rating places it first in the country; it's easy to see why, it's a great station, with plenty of good shops and places to eat; it has enough space to move around, but so much that you feel lost. (See Day 11.)

3rd: Salisbury - A great little station, with a great café, and ramps to the subway instead of steps. (See Day 5.)

Commendations also go to London Paddington, Bristol Temple Meads, and Leeds.

Worst Station:

Aberdeen - A grotty, empty station with nowhere to get any decent food; a real shame, since no doubt the station used to be much more important. (See Day 2.)

I also didn't much like Carlisle station: however, its crime is more one of mediocrity and blandness.

Best Train Operating Company:

Joint 1st: Wrexham and Shropshire and Grand Central - Both the open access operators I used were in a class of their own: the staff were friendly and helpful, even on the platforms; the food was hot and fresh, and the trains were comfortable and spacious. (See Day 6 for Wrexham and Shropshire, and Day 10 for Grand Central.)

2nd: South West Trains - Excellent by their understatement: the staff were efficient, there when you needed them but never in the way; the trolley service was good, and the trains were comfortable and punctual. (See Day 3 and Day 5.)

3rd: Northern Rail - I was only on two of their trains, but both were very comfortable, the staff were attentive, though the lack of catering was disappointing. (See Day 11 and Day 12.)

Commendations go to First ScotRail for the Caledonian Sleeper service (though the rest of their services aren't to the same standard), and to Chiltern Railways for an efficient service (with which I was so familiar that I didn't bother to sample this time).

Worst Train Operating Company:

Worst: CrossCountry - Admittedly I was only on two trains, and a lot of their failings are not down to them but the trains they inherited. Nonetheless, the two journeys I made on CrossCountry were among the most uncomfortable journeys I've ever made, the trains are too short, the timetable is convenient for operation but not for the passengers (sorry, "customers"), the staff were conspicuous by their absence, and the catering was pretty poor. (See Day 9 and Day 10.)

2nd Worst: Virgin Trains - If it weren't for the speed of their trains, Virgin Trains would easily be the worst train company I've been on. The trains themselves are quite uncomfortable; the visibility is terrible in all cases; the shop insists on selling magazines instead of decent hot food; in most cases the staff were lazy, and occasionally even rude; and the punctuality is very hit-and-miss. (See days 1, 5, 11 and 12.)

Best Rolling Stock:

1st: Mark 3 Stock - Sometimes the oldest is also the best: these thirty-year old carriages, used in every High-Speed Train, have stood the test of time (until, that is, they've been ruined by refurbishment). They are ubiquitous: see days 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9 and 10.

2nd: Sprinters (all classes) - The Sprinters are the workhorse of the regional services, and with just one or two exceptions provide a comfortable way to see the countryside, even if their top speed isn't great. Also ubiquitous: see days 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12 and 14.

Joint 3rd: Mark 4 Stock and Class 222 'Meridian' - The Mark 4 stock dates from 1989, while the Meridians date from 2004; both, however, are refreshingly modern trains which are comfortable and have good visibility. (See Day 2 for the Mark 4 stock, and Day 10 for the Meridians.)

The Desiros, both the diesel ones used by TransPennine Express and the electric ones used by South West Trains, also deserve a commendation.

Worst Rolling Stock:

Joint worst: Class 170 'Turbostar' and Class 175 'Coradia' - Both these recent classes are poor imitations of the Sprinters, and they both have terrible seats, not enough legroom, not enough luggage space, and poor visibility. (See Day 9 for the Turbostar and Day 5 for the Coradia.)

Joint 2nd worst: Class 220 'Voyager' and Class 221 'Super Voyager' - Much, much too short for InterCity journeys, with terrible seats, many with very poor visibility. (See Day 10 for the Voyager and Days 11 and 12 for the Super Voyager.)

If I were to give an award for worst visibility, it would have to go to the Class 390 Pendolinos; they avoid an award for Worst Rolling Stock only by virtue of their superb speed.

Last, but not least, the award for Best Scenery:

3rd: Exeter-Penzance - Brunel's masterpiece: the line runs along the coast and over the mountains of Devon, over the Tamar on the superb Royal Albert Bridge, and snakes its way along the spine of Cornwall to the sea. (See Day 4.)

2nd: North Wales - The lines in North Wales I traversed on Day 6, namely Holyhead-Llandudno Jct-Blaenau Ffestiniog-Porthmadog-Fairbourne are superb, and when put together they come very close to taking first prize.

1st: Glasgow-Fort William - The West Highland Line isn't just the best line in the UK, it's the best railway line in the world. Stunning views from a breathtakingly-engineered line. (See Day 14.)


First, let's get the disappointments out of the way. I was disappointed not to have seen more of Scotland - I should have gone north two days earlier than I did, and not worried so much about the weather forecast. Not seeing the Perth-Inverness line was the biggest disappointment; Mallaig and Wick are distant ends of long branch lines, while the line to Kyle of Lochalsh I've already seen (five years ago).

The original plan I had was thrown out the window before I even started: I originally planned to go to Scotland first, but I decided pretty quickly that the weather wasn't up to much. The original Day 10 became Day 1, with one or two changes. The Day 2 trip to Aberdeen that I finished with the sleeper train was in fact planned as Day 1, without the sleeper train, to get me to Scotland.

The exploration of the South West in Days 3, 4 and 5 was pretty different than what I'd planned; I originally intend to head to Penzance on a South West Trains service, and come back by the Night Riviera sleeper train. I'm very glad I changed my mind on that one - to miss the fantastic scenery while in a sleeper train would have been sacrilegious.

The only days that were pretty much as planned were Days 6 and 8 in Wales, because the arrangement to stay the weekend in Fairbourne was by far the hardest thing to change. That's not to say it wasn't a bit tight; ten minutes delay at Holyhead and I would have been stuffed, forced to replan things on the spot.

Days 9 and 10 (Tuesday and Wednesday) were done almost completely ad hoc, since I didn't get the chance to book anywhere for Tuesday night, and the forecast for Wednesday was abysmal. The services I went on were interesting, as was the trip to the National Railway Museum, but there wasn't much in the way of scenery. Fortunately, days 11, 12 and 14 made up for it: the Settle and Carlisle, the Cumbrian Coast Line and the West Highland Line are all really good lines.

But doing things ad hoc is part of the point of this ticket. The All-Line Rover is the ultimate flexible ticket, and as much as you can plan things there'll always be things that go wrong. Fortunately, while there were a few incidents along the way, none of them completely derailed my plans.

While there were a few points at which I was less than ecstatic, on the whole I loved the experience. The experiences of soaring through Berwick, curling slowly through Devon and Cornwall, climbing slowly over the roof of Wales, and crossing the wilderness of Rannoch Moor are just some of the memories that will last a lifetime.

So too will some of the less tangible memories: such as being crammed into the busiest tube train I've ever seen, the emptiness on the Stansted Express, and the coming-and-going of some of the regional services like Liverpool-Norwich.

Getting off the last train in Glasgow Queen Street, having come 5622 miles, was quite a poignant moment: I'd certainly had the value of the ticket, and I'd enjoyed it all thoroughly, but there was more I felt I could have done, especially in Scotland. But, frankly, I was pretty tired, and I was glad to get home and get a decent rest.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the two weeks on trains: the experiences will stay with me for a long time, and it will undoubtedly shape my future outlook on the railway network.

Will I do it again, someday? You bet.


  1. "it was crammed, Japanese-style"

    Was breathing difficult? If not then its not really crammed Japanese style -- or at least Japanese style when the train is late on the Yamanote Line ( line.

  2. Best Noise: From what my lectures tell me, the whine of the electric trains (like the ones that stop at canley station) are not due to the gearing, but are instead due to the shift in the... *gets lecture notes* ... frequency modulation ratio of the Pulse Width Modulated (PWM) inverter that powers the variabe speed drive motors. The purpose is to keep the fundamental modulating frequency and therefore its harmonics within a reasonable range, so that they may be filtered to prevent damage to the motors and/or inverter. Oddly enough this is also called "gearing", but I wouldn't want you to make people think the gearing was mechanical, unless you intended to.

  3. I've really enjoyed your posts about your Rail Rover. My Dad and I are doing our second 1-week All Line Rail Rover in May, and I'm looking forward most to the Wales loop that you did on Day 6.