Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for July 8th, 2008

European Trip – the story so far

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I am now at my sister’s house in Nottingham, with access to broadband – and no limitations, other than familial obligations. I found it quite surprising that a very expensive Central London hotel did not provide broadband as part of deal, but charged more for a day than most people pay for a month! But then they even charge £1.50 for toll free phone calls. The Park Plaza County Hall is not in fact in County Hall (that’s a Marriot) but across the street, but very conveniently located for most things.

I did not rent a car and have not needed one. The train from Gatwick to Victoria is very good, and from outside Victoria Station I lined up for a while to buy two “pay as you go” Oyster cards, which I loaded with enough credit for four days all in the Central Zone.  These not only got us unlimited bus and tube rides, but also dicounts on things like a river trip. Note to Kevin Falcon: I was not required to provide any personal information to get an Oyster card. (Indeed neither was that thought necessary in New York for a MetroCard.)

The amount of fare integration is less than 100%. It does not cover national rail services within the capital – so for instance for a fast direct train from Greenwich to Waterloo, we paid £2 each in cash, as the service was more direct than anything Transport for London has to offer. This seems to stem from commercial concerns as none of the national train operators has adopted the Oyster technology. So far as I could see you cannot use Oyster cards to make other small purchases either – unlike Hong Kong.

The big difference for me is the way that London buses now have been made very much better in recent years. There are a lot more of them and they have much more in the way of on street priority. For visitors to London, I think buses are a much better way to get around – as the view from the top deck of a bus is hard to beat. There are many hop on hop off sightseeing buses – many with no roof – but these are not operated by TfL – although their operations are regulated by them to minimize opertaional conflicts. My advice to visitors is to ignore these tours and rely on service buses, which are cheap, frequent and very reliable. Not only that but there are ticket machines at the stops to speed boarding, and lots of information in the shelters, which also include perch type seats. We never had to wait long, and always knew where to get the bus and where it was going before we got on. Drivers seem to have very little interaction with passengers, and thus less stress and can concentrate on driving.

The congestion charge has had an effect, but it has not eliminated congestion. Special events such as a gay pride parade and a 10k run can still plug up the central area (last weekend saw both). That is when the tube is better. But otherwise I find that the indirectness of some routes,and the long walks through subterranean tunnels, make buses a better bet even if there is not much to see. And the large area set aside for wheelchairs is also good for luggage. So this morning to get from Waterloo to St Pancras, a one seat ride on a 59 was better than the tube with a transfer.

The refurbished St Pancras Station is very impressive – and also easy to use. Dominated by Eurostar, local and national services have been pushed to the back, but integration with bus, tube and rail is much better. Kings Cross is also being improved so the whole rather seedy area will be revitalized.  

 222056 St Pancras 20080708

What is now East Midlands trains is still operating the combination of HSTs and Meridiens they inherited from Midland Mainline. While the Meridian is a fast modern train, it is nothing like as good as an HST from a passenger’s perspective. There is less room, and not nearly enough baggage stowage, the seating in airline style is not as welcoming as face to face – and the worst fault is that windows do not line up with seats, so the view can be restricted or nothing at all. And diesel engine roaring away under each car is a lot noisier than more powerful units in the end cars only.  

That being said, they are still many years ahead of anything currently in use in Canada for inter city travel – and managed the 129 miles in 1 hour 40 minutes with 2 stops – and booking in advance got me a £10 ticket. So not only faster than a car but cheaper too.

I have only been picking up local free papers here – and catching up on major news stories – so do not expect much on BC events from me for a while.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 8, 2008 at 7:48 am