(james benedict brown) on the road

Breaking the last link

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 17 August, 2010

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.



Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 21 March, 2009

Every journey has a beginning, and regrettably in Glasgow that usually involves an overpriced bus. Allowing for some traveller’s artistic license, I could happily remember a journey to the Isle of Skye beginning here, at the tranquil Helensburgh Upper railway station. Maybe twenty miles from Glasgow, Helensburgh has two stations, one with a regular service on the electric line into Glasgow and the other a modest single platform in a cutting on the northern fringe of the town. Having skirted along the shores of the Clyde for half an hour or so, the West Highland Line begins here. We have left behind the grey tower blocks, littered streets and urbanised horizons of the city, and suddenly find ourselves rattling through rolling rural landscapes.

I have taken this train many times before, although not since moving to Glasgow last year. This line is no longer a component of a much longer journey from England to the remote west coast of Scotland, but a practical escape hatch from the city to the countryside. A couple of times a day an unassuming train of railcars departs Queen Street station for Fort William and Mallaig, normally with a portion to Oban detaching en route. After winding up steep hills past suspicious looking military bases, the train approaches Loch Lomond and begins a sharper and more screeching series of curves. Above us, only mountain. Below us, only trees, glimpses of a road and water. At Ardlui we’re held up for a short while, waiting for a southbound train to leave the single track ahead.

Being so remote, the West Highland Line has no traditional railway signals to control access to its portions of single track. A team of doubtless charming British Rail boffins developed a system in the nineteen-eighties that could satisfactorily replace the traditional tokens. Until then (and to this day on other remote British railway lines) an actual physical token, normally a large coin or loop that could easily be scooped from a signalman by the driver of a passing train, must be held by a driver before he or she can lead a train onto a section of single track. With only one token, it’s a relatively failsafe system to ensure that only one train enters a section of track at any one time.

The solution of the dynamic and pre-portable computer nineteen-eighties is a radio-controlled system. The token is virtual, transmitted by radio to an ungainly metal box in the cab of the train. On clearing a section of single track (normally at a station with a passing loop) the driver releases the token for the previous section of track and then awaits reception of the new token.

Don’t ask me how it works, but it does. And it permits an archaic but astonishingly beautiful railway to continue to exist, with daily passenger service and popular summertime tourist trains winding through the mountains of the West Highlands, perfectly framing any escape from the city with a rolling landscape of beautiful scenery and wildlife.

Rule #1 of indy podcasting: don’t waste time asking

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 3 March, 2008

What’s it like inside the mind and email inbox of an amateur podcaster? Here are some e-mails sent and received in preparation of the production and recording of ontheroad podcast episode 07. Proof, if I ever really needed it, that there’s no point asking when you know that the answer is likely to be no.

From: James Brown
To: Debbie M_____, East Midlands Trains
Date: Wednesday, 13 February, 2008 11:13:11 AM
Re: Podcast recording at Sheffield Station

Dear Ms Mather,

I’ve been passed your contact details by the EMT customer relations team.

I am a postgraduate student at the University of Sheffield, and an independent podcaster. I produce about six podcasts a year, which record the places and people I meet on my travels. The podcast currently has a very small audience (three figures max) who access the podcast through my website and iTunes.

For Valentines Day, I want to produce a short episode of the podcast that speaks to the people waiting for their loved ones at Sheffield station. Every year I see countless people waiting with large bouquets of flowers, and each one will have a story that I am interested to hear.

I am therefore seeking your permission to spend a couple of hours towards the end of Valentines Day at Sheffield station, asking those who are obviously waiting for loved ones who they are waiting for, how they met etc. I will only record these conversations with their permission, and will not seek to disrupt the smooth running of the station. No commercial gain will be made from this activity, and East Midlands Trains will naturally be credited in the podcast.

For more details about the ephemeral nature of the show, please see:


You can reach me by email or on 07790 XXXXXX.

Many thanks,

James Brown

A few hours later, I got a reply. Unfortunately…

From: Debbie M_____, East Midlands Trains
To: James Brown
Date: Wednesday, 13 February, 2008 4:02:08 PM
Re: Debbie Mather is out of the office…

I will be out of the office starting 13/02/2008 and will not return until 20/02/2008.

I’ll respond to your message on my return.

This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the individual or entity to whom they are addresses. If you have received this email in error please notify the East Midlands Trains IT Department on 44 (0) 1332 XXXXXX.

So, in the quandry of a tight deadline and no official permission to record, I did what any self respecting podcaster would do. I went ahead and made the show anyway. Good thing that I did, because a week later…

From: Debbie M_____, East Midlands Trains
To:James Brown
Date: Wednesday, 20 February, 2008 8:15:27 AM
Re: Podcast recording at Sheffield Station

Hello James

As I am sure you can imagine we receive quite a number of requests to use our premises as a filming or recording location. For commercial filming we charge upwards for £250 per hour and we simply do not have the resource to make arrangements free of charge, as each request requires certain administrative work and supervision on the day.

I am afraid we cannot give permission to you and I apologise for any disappointment this may cause.


Debbie M_____
Communications Executive
East Midlands Trains

So, retrospective permission for the podcast that was recorded, edited and published a week earlier could not be given. Should I be expecting a bill?

Escape thetrainline

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 16 January, 2008


Here’s a little development that might make your traveling life easier. If, like me, you are an occasional or frequent long distance of intercity train passenger in the UK, you are probably familiar with the god-awful travel planning and ticket booking website thetrainline.com

Until early this year, thetrainline.com was the only booking engine on the internet for buying National Rail train tickets. Although other websites, including those of the train operators themselves, sold tickets, they all used thetrainline’s archaic and illogical system. This demanded e-mail registration, numerous pages to present ticket options, and then a complicated process to reveal the cheapest possible single fares that might be better value than a return.  To add insult to injury, thetrainline.com started 2008 by refreshing its delivery options. Free second class postal delivery is no longer an option (you must now pay £1 for first class delivery or more four next-day or same-day courier dispatch) and if you want to collect your ticket from a FastTicket machine at a station, you have to pay £0.50. There is now no way to buy a ticket on thetrainline.com without paying for ticket delivery in some form.

So, to the rescue, bounds in the new operator of the east coast train franchise, formely known as GNER. National Express have won the rights to operate this franchise, and with their flashy new website, they’ve finally launched an online booking engine to challenge thetrainline. And it’s a winner. Several pages of input are now compressed into just one. You can enter your journey requirements on the first page and then see all the possible ticket options on the next. The screenshot above shows what seems to be referred to as ‘the mixing deck’. Two columns group your outward and return trains. At the top of each column are buttons that, when clicked, highlight trains with available groups of ascending fares. So you click the preferred fare at the top of the column, and then the trains with seats at those prices show up. You then do the same on the return column, and the ‘mixing deck’ combines them on the yellow cross-bar to show you your fare with all the times, dates and restrictions. And from what I can see (having yet had reason to book a ticket) there’s no charge for ticket collection.

You can find the new booking engine at www.nationalexpresseastcoast.co.uk