From the south coast of England to the northern tip of Scotland. Together with a friend, I made an epic journey by rail on June 23
Impressive scenery and space to work – although a cup of tea would have been nice!
It’s Friday, June 23, and I am off on an epic train journey from the south coast to the north coast in a day, from Newhaven Harbour to Thurso. I am with my friend Peter, who is capturing the day on his phone.
I am not sure this trip has been attempted before in a day, at least not in a public way – live tweets are recording the journey as it happens. I will be relaxing, taking in the scenery, and getting some work done – none of which would be possible if I was travelling by car or air. I will also be responsible for a mere fraction of the carbon that I would be emitting if I were driving or flying.
Off to a good start. The sun is shining at Newhaven, the water is glistening behind me, and it is already pleasantly warm. The ferry from Dieppe has just docked and is unloading its passengers. The Southern train arrives and departs on time. For those who know their rolling stock, the clapped out 313s have been replaced on the line by the much more comfortable 377s.
We arrive in Lewes on time, which gives us five minutes to pick up a hot drink from the excellent independent café, the Runaway. The train to London arrives two minutes early and leaves on time. Another 377. The train is surprisingly only about a quarter full. Commuting on a Friday has clearly gone out of fashion, even though Southern is offering a peak hour discount on Mondays and Fridays
In London on time and off to maybe the cheapest café in central London for a coffee and fried egg roll. Then it’s on to the Victoria line for the short hop to King’s Cross. Although the tube trains are running every 60 seconds, our train is still standing room only. But then the tube is much the easiest and quickest way to get round the capital. Why anyone drives in London is beyond me, and always has been. I even turned down a ministerial car when I was a minister, one of a select group of three ever to have done this. I can’t see the point of a car in central London.
The refurbished King’s Cross station is impressive and confident. The recreated St Pancras next door was a turning point. The railway industry believes in itself today in a way it hadn’t since probably the 1950s. I am surprised and impressed to see that there seems to be a half-hourly service to Edinburgh. Our train is a new LNER Azuma and leaves bang on time. Notwithstanding the frequency, our train is packed out with every seat taken, as far as I can see. This, and the earlier Southern journey, reinforces the fact that while commuter traffic is still well below pre-Covid levels, leisure travel is booming.
We now experience a live demonstration of how crowded the network is. It seems we were stuck behind a late Grand Central train and have now missed our path. I suspect we are now following a local train that should have been behind us
Our train is late into York, held outside for eight minutes while we wait for a platform. Let’s hope we can make up time. We now experience a live demonstration of how crowded the network is. It seems we were stuck behind a late Grand Central train and have now missed our path. I suspect we are now following a local train that should have been behind us. Progress is painfully slow and we are gradually losing more time.
25 minutes late into Newcastle, and now we are stuck behind another local train. Estimated time into Edinburgh is now 13.53 rather than 13.20. We had a very tight 10-minute connection at Edinburgh which we will now miss, so we will have to resort to our Plan B, the only other option to get us to Thurso today. This is a train out of Edinburgh at 14.41 with then a five-minute connection at Perth and a five-minute connection at Inverness for the last train of the day to Thurso. It needs everything to go like clockwork for this to work. I wonder why Scotrail have such tight connections, for I presume they are meant to be connections. In the meantime, we enjoy fantastic views out of the window of the Northumberland coast and indeed of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the last town in England and one which in the past was actually in Scotland. Indeed Berwick Rangers FC still plays in the Scottish football league.
We’re in Scotland!
We finally arrive in Edinburgh 35 minutes late but at least there is now time for a bite to eat and a pit stop before Plan B takes effect. This is the 14.41 to Perth.
Not an encouraging start. The train’s departure is delayed by eight minutes to allow a late running LNER train to Aberdeen to get ahead of us. This is sensible in the big scheme of things, but a pity the same priority was not given to our LNER train between York and Berwick! We have now gone about 200 yards and stopped again. The train crew are being very friendly and said they will try to get the connection at Perth held, but no promises. The conductor James comes over for a word. He has rung the operations centre and persuaded them to hold both the Inverness and Thurso connections if necessary. Brilliant. He definitely gets my person of the day award. Meanwhile, the overhead information screen is stuck on advice that the next station is Haymarket, which thankfully we left some time ago. And on this train, as all others today, we are constantly bombarded with “see it, say it, sorted” messages. Can’t anyone rid us of this plague?
We arrive in Perth, seven minutes after the Inverness train was due to depart, to find James has worked a miracle. The Glasgow-Inverness train is being held for us, and indeed the 40 or so other passengers who wanted to transfer. It is a long time to hold a train but absolutely the correct decision. If I miss a train in Lewes, there’s another one along soon. If I had missed this train, well that was it. What I really need now is a cup of tea, as there had been no trolley, let alone a buffet car, on the Edinburgh-Perth service. To my dismay, I find there is nothing either on this so-called Inter-City service.
To my surprise and relief, our train reaches Inverness precisely on time, which suggests a good deal of padding in the timetable, given we left about 11 minutes late. Not that I am complaining on this occasion.
To my dismay, there is no food and drink on this train either. Has ScotRail given up on catering?
The last leg, north to distant Thurso. The town is a long way north from Inverness, almost four hours away. To my dismay, there is no food and drink on this train either. Has ScotRail given up on catering? The landscape, especially for the second half of the journey, presents a sort of impressive bleakness, enhanced by the sky which is becoming increasingly grey. Many of the stations are request stops with no sign of life anywhere near except the station building itself. When I later mention to the friend I am staying with that there is nothing at Altnabraec, he corrects me. “No, no, there’s a lodge a mile and a half away.”
We reach Georgemas Junction, where there really is nothing bar a railway junction, with one leg going to Wick and the other to Thurso. The driver changes ends and we set off for the 15 minute sprint to Thurso. At Thurso he will take the train to Wick, again via Georgemas Junction, where it will be stabled for the night.
Not everything has been perfect in the journey, but these are small niggles. Most importantly, we have shown that even with a complicated journey, rail works
We arrive in Thurso bang on time. It is 16 hours and 19 minutes since we left Newhaven Harbour bang on time. We have used seven trains, including one tube, to traverse the country from the south coast to the north coast. Not everything has been perfect in the journey, but these are small niggles. Most importantly, we have shown that even with a complicated journey, rail works.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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