Sunday, 17 June 2012

North Country Rover: Summary

Over the course of six days over the Jubilee weekend, Ian and I packed in a lot:

Day 1 (Thursday 31st May): (Milton Keynes / ) Coventry - Birmingham - Leeds - York
Day 2 (Friday 1st June): York - (bus) - Pickering - (NYMR) - Grosmont - (replacement bus) - Whitby - Middlesbrough - (dinner in Great Ayton) - York
Day 3 (Saturday 2nd June): York - Scarborough - Hull - York - Selby - Leeds - Saltaire - Bradford - Ilkley - Leeds - Harrogate - York
Day 4 (Sunday 3rd June): Railfest 2012
Day 5 (Monday 4th June): York - Leeds - Carnforth - Barrow-in-Furness - Ravenglass - R&ER to Dalegarth - Ravenglass - Carlisle - Newcastle - York
Day 6 (Tuesday 5th June): York - Preston - Lancaster - Heysham Port - Morecambe - Leeds - Birmingham - Coventry ( / Northampton)

We racked up a grand total of 1274 miles over six days, of which we spent one day, 8 hours and 55 minutes on trains (and a couple of buses). We got around most of the area covered by the North Country Rover, as this map shows. For the 893 miles we covered on the rover, we paid just £54.15, which works out at just 6p per mile. (In contrast, I spent £39.80 to get to and from York, at 13p a mile - which still isn't too bad, I guess.)

As an illustration of how good value the rover ticket is, our day 5 trip round the Cumbrian Coast could have been done on a York-Ravenglass return (excluding the R&ER itself), which would have cost £46.75. Compared with £54.15 for the whole weekend, I think we got the value of the ticket!

Every day (perhaps not counting day 1) had something special in it. The trip to Whitby and back on day 2 was perhaps the most enjoyable day, simply because of the sheer variety of the day: a bus, a steam train through the North Yorkshire Moors, a railway line that shouldn't still exist, a wonderful evening with my cousin and my first ever rail-replacement bus. I never thought that my first rail-replacement bus would be enjoyable, let alone give us beautiful views.

In contrast, I guess day 3 was perhaps the least exciting day, because it was "just" a day of going on lots of trains - but it was still remarkably enjoyable to go on so many different trains and so much new track - especially being able to go on electric trains!

But each of the last three days were enjoyable in very different ways. Day 4 at Railfest was so much fun, just for being able to feel like a five-year-old and getting to sit in the driver's seat of numerous trains. Day 5 was an epically long day round the Cumbrian Coast, which yielded hot sunshine and some of the best views of the Irish Sea I've ever seen.

Finally, day 6 involved three bits of "rare track". Going on rare track is somehow more exciting than just going on a line which is served frequently; there's more of a sense of "event", because it's easy to travel over a line that's served ten times every hour, but that bit more difficult when there's just one train a day that can take you over the line in question. It's no good being able to say "I've been on every line... except X, Y and Z, because they're not served very often"; when you're track-bashing the whole country, you have to worry about every single line!

Our travels round the north showed a network seemingly lacking in coherent planning: while some lines get favoured with brand new trains - such as the class 185 Desiros for TPE, and the class 333 electric trains on the Leeds-Bradford/Skipton/Ilkley suburban services - other lines have to make do and mend with some of the oldest and least suitable trains on the network, such as Pacers and some very old Sprinters. The Northern Hub proposals, combined with electrification between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York, should go some way to addressing these issues.

But that still leaves a number of rural branch lines which seem to struggle on with a poor service owing largely to 1980s cuts on the part of BR, stemming from a lack of available rolling stock. For example, the Middlesbrough-Whitby timetable has barely changed in 25 years, and the lack of an early-morning service from Whitby means that if you want to get from Whitby to London you can't arrive before 13:45 (and if you want to make the last train home, you have to leave again at 14:30!).

This is in part due to the current Northern franchise being let on a "no-growth" basis: simply put, they planned to fund the franchise as if passenger numbers would remain steady. But passenger numbers have increased dramatically over the past few years, with a 25% increase in just the last five years; it is thus little wonder that many of Northern's key commuter trains are crowded to the hilt. (That said, Northern do a great job of sweating the fleet of trains that they do have to the absolute maximum.) I only hope that when the TPE and Northern franchises are re-let in 2014 that they plan for a dramatic increase in capacity that is so desparately needed in places.

Nonetheless, the occasional crowded train did little to diminish the experience, be it a steam train to Whitby (well, almost!), or a branch line in rural Yorkshire, or round the Cumbrian coast, or traversing rarely-used track in Morecambe, or just climbing aboard a train at Railfest. My thanks to Ian for an enjoyable and fascinating weekend on trains.

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