At 19:37 on Friday, the Stena HSS fast ferry docked at Stranraer harbour in south-west Scotland. Three minutes later, the 19:40 Scotrail train to Glasgow Central departed Stranraer’s railway station, located next to the ferry terminal.
Only two people made it off the packed Friday-night sailing and onto the train. I was one them, under-exercised muscles burning, lungs heaving and every inch of my skin sweating. As the diminutive and noisy two carriage Sprinter train rolled slowly out of the shabby railway station, I caught the briefest of glimpses of tired, angry and frustrated passengers just making it onto the platform, heaving suitcases, prams and bags with them.
This is the state of integrated public transport in Great Britain today: a fragmented and privatised patchwork of private companies, each concerned more with their own bottom line and the penalties of not running their own services to time than with serving the people who feed their profits.
Stranraer railway station is built adjacent to the Stena Line ferry terminal, and is in fact closer and more easily accessible by boat than it is from the town of Stranraer itself. Stranraer Town railway station has long been closed, and the word Harbour has subsequently been dropped from the name of this station. It was built in the late nineteenth century and, for most of the twentieth century, has been the designated interchange for British rail passengers crossing the North Channel to Northern Ireland. Until the early nineteen-nineties, there were daily Intercity Sleeper trains to and from London that were timed to connect with ferries. Until a year or two ago, direct trains connected the port with Carlisle and Newcastle. And until next year, the last remaining passenger trains connect these sailings with Glasgow. In a bid to shorten ferry crossings by about ten miles, services are being moved north towards the mouth of Loch Ryan.
The new Loch Ryan Port will have no rail access, and foot passengers will be dependent on bus connections instead. Great Britain and Northern Ireland will lose their last direct rail and sail connection (the alternative being via Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire or Dublin). The relocation of the port has been sold on the promise of “shorter” crossings, since Loch Ryan Port will be about eight or nine miles north of Stranraer, and closer to the opening of Loch Ryan onto the North Channel. However, Stena aren’t just building a new port. They’re also buying two new “super fast conventional ferries” that will complete the “shorter” crossing in “just over two hours”. As you can see from the timetable above, that means the new (geographically) “shorter” crossing will actually take longer than the fastest existing Stena HSS service, which takes two hours exactly. Due to rising fuel costs and its horrendous fuel consumption, Stena Line will be retiring their Stena HSS gas turbine fast ferry and replacing it with conventional boats that are cheaper to run.
You can buy a ticket to Belfast (or any station in Ireland, north and south) from any British railway station. Fares are astonishingly reasonable, if sometimes difficult to purchase. A ‘Anytime’ single from London to Belfast costs just £46, and is available right up until departure. Likewise, a single from Glasgow to Belfast costs justs £25. Both fares can be reduced by about a third with a 16-25 or Senior Railcard as well. The problem is, Stena Line and Scotrail have no interest is facilitating the interchange of such low-yielding passengers.
Scotrail hold a franchise to operate passenger services on the National Rail network. The bizarre legal arrangements of the systems once nationalised under British Rail means that they have to meet certain punctuality targets, or pay financial penalties. The railway line between Stranraer and Ayr (where it joins the suburban lines towards Glasgow) is mostly single track with just a handful of passing loops. Single track segments are securely controlled through the use of physical tokens passed between train drivers and signalmen at various points along its route. The countryside through which the railway runs is very remote, and track maintenance is difficult due to limited access by road. The clickety-clack of bolted railway tracks still fills the train carriage as it bounces through rural Wigtownshire: unlike mainline railways this one has yet to be modernised with continuously welded and tensioned rails. One late train on this route can cause havoc, delaying the next service in the opposite direction which will usually be waiting for it at the next passing loop. One late train means financial penalties to Scotrail, but two late trains means twice the penalties.
In other words, Scotrail aren’t going to delay the train for delayed Stena Line passengers. Similarly, Stena Line operate almost as if the railway doesn’t exist. Stena have operated the route since British Rail sold its Sealink Ferries division in 1991. Whereas the ferry was once an effective continuation of passenger trains from all over Great Britain, they are now just awkward bed fellows who happen to serve the same small town in Wigtownshire.
But not for much longer. On 10 February 2010, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh washed their hands of any responsibility on the matter of integrated tansport, and approved the Loch Ryan Port (Harbour Empowerment) Order 2009. The £200m “investment” in an unintegrated ferry port on Loch Ryan and two new ferries seemed to sway more political minds than the thought of losing Britain’s last rail and sail interchange for Northern Ireland. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond even went so far as to say:
The relocation of the port to the new Loch Ryan Port will also aid tourism with faster crossings between Scotland and Northern Ireland and help the regeneration of Stranraer as a major marine leisure area. This is a significant day for transport and investment in Scotland.
And a significant day for anyone who lives in (or wants to get to) Northern Ireland, by affordable, sustainable and enjoyable rail and sail.
Footnote: The Stranraer to Ayr Line Suport Association, who had volunteers on my train, have unearthed data from Department for Transport Maritime Port statistics and “Sustainable Development Commission recognised sources” relating to the relocation of the port. With my emphasis:
The environmental damage will be considerable as the A77 corridor currently contributes in excess of 45,000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere of which over 26,000 tonnes derives from the Stranraer and Cairnryan areas alone. It is hard to reconcile this decision with the Scottish Government’s climate change agenda. The ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan have also declined over the last decade with reductions in cars (down 36%), passengers (down 38%) and lorries (down 21%) at Stranraer and in cars (down 16%)and passengers (down 18%) at Cairnryan. This suggests that whilst Cairnryan may have some advantage over Stranraer, the decline is structural. It is interesting to note that local authorities in North Wales are lobbying for a rail freight facility at Holyhead in complete contrast to Dumfries & Galloway and South Ayrshire Councils. Ironically the amount of rai/ferry passenger traffic at Stranraer has increased over the last six years.
Earlier this week I caught a flight from Stansted Airport back to Northern Ireland. I first visited Stansted shortly after it opened in the early nineteen-nineties, when the vast £100,000,000 terminal was home to just a handful of airlines. Back then it was a delightful experience; a crystal clear navigational experience, with clean signage and spacious circulation spaces.
The plan was for Stansted to become London’s premier gateway, a true alternative to Heathrow and Gatwick, which could tempt the long haul airlines and passengers out into the Essex countryside. Then the ground beneath the aviation industry shifted, and it became instead a low-cost hub for budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Designed with the intention of making your passage through the airport as smooth as possible, Stansted was rapidly reconfigured to make your passage through the airport as expensive as possible. The airside lounge is a grotty and crowded retail hellhole, designed around the meandering line principle that if you expose passengers to the maximum possible surface area of shop frontages, they will eventually succomb and buy something.
Despite having three satellites (and a fourth under construction) departing passengers are bottle necked inside this cramped area in the main terminal until the hour or half hour before their departure. This is again to maximise their exposure to retail enlightenment rather than the relative tranquility of the satellite buildings.
Of particular amusement to me, spotted while waiting for my gate to be called, was this notice, applied in vinyl beneath the departure screens:
Stansted Airport does not verify the accuracy or completeness of this flight information which is supplied direct from your airline. The airport accepts no liability for any loss or damages suffered as a result of the reliance on such information which may later prove to be inaccurate or incomplete.
Departure information? Nah, this is just the departure information screen. Not our responsibility, mate…
Most British city dwellers will probably recognise the engine note of a black cab. The older ones have a fruity burble, and the more recent blobby looking models have an equally gruff but distinct engine that can also be heard under the bonnet of some commercial trucks and vans.
The sound – the noise of a black cab approaching – is one filed under ‘comfort’ in my aural memory bank. No matter what time of day or night (usually the latter) the sound of a black cab indicates security and warmth. It’s even better when you’re on the inside, burbling away from a cold and wet night on the town. In Sheffield the comforting effect is particularly noticeable, since the engines have to work just that bit harder to get you up the hills that would have certainly taken forty-five minutes had you chosen to walk home instead.
In Belfast, however, it’s different. The black cab drivers there still operate with multiple occupancy on some routes, and unwritten rules about where to hail a cab or who to share with have always eluded me. When I lived there – almost four years ago now – I was much more clued into the surfeit of mini cabs that serve the city.
The two largest cab firms were – I was once reliably informed – the only ones who chose to make payments to those groups who might disrupt their business on both sides of the community lines in the city. Whether or not that is still true, I do not know. I lived in a lively and young neighbourhood that was a balanced mixed of transient protestants, catholics and non-Northern Irish folk who couldn’t understand the difference. Being surrounded by student houses, we were well connected by bus to the city and it was never hard to find a cab into or from town.
One cab firm lodged itself in my memory and my mobile phone. I’ve changed cellphone several times since leaving Belfast but I seem to have successfully transferred my phonebook each time. In Belfast this week for the first of many regular visits, I needed a cab home on just the kind of dark, cold and rainy night for which cabs were invented. I didn’t need to remember the number but it surprised me to scroll down and find it there: saved in a phone that was bought long after I moved from Northern Ireland.
The advantage of this (and many other small firms) over the two dominant companies is that although they have fewer drivers, fewer people call them first. Approaching midnight I had to wait less the five minutes for a cab to arrive outside the busy Cathedral Quarter bar I had been invited along to by a man who recognised me after four years away.
This time, the engine note of the car was not the aural comfort that subconsciously told me I was going home. If the engine of a black cab is the sign of a safe journey home in Sheffield, the illuminated geographical name on the roof of a cab is my Friday night comforter in Belfast. Waiting that short while for my cab to arrive on a bustling street corner, I filtered out the cabs belonging to other companies. I imagine I could have hopped in any one of them, but for some strange reason I stuck to my obscure loyalties. Perhaps because I wanted to know whether they still comforted me. And they do. Along the length of a narrow cobbled street I spotted a nondescript Japanese sedan approaching, its illuminated boards bearing the name of my old neighbourhood that is legible to me even before the letters come into focus.
I chatted to the driver as he pulled me away from the cold night; his car warm in temperature and temperament. I recounted my discovery of the number in my phone, and he established my credentials as an outsider, yet one who might be considered a regular. As visitors often do when in Belfast cabs, we talked about the city, about the nightlife and about the changing scene of the province. My driver referred to recent events, bemoaning the fact that much of the province’s trouble is now being caused by those too young ‘to remember when we didn’t have Tesco, when we didn’t have all this investment’.
Assuredly avoiding the Friday night traffic hot spots, we chatted in very brief syllables about the past, present and future. At some point – far before my destination – he turned off the meter and rounded it down to a very generous fare. As I stepped out of the cab, wishing him a safe night, I considered that not only were cabs much cheaper here than back home; they were also driven by much friendlier people. Not once in five years of living in Sheffield did I talk with a taxi driver.