Monday, 19 October 2009

A trip on the WCML with Virgin Trains

I’ve wanted to travel on the West Coast Main Line ever since its £9 billion upgrade was finally completed, late and massively over-budget. What fascinated me the most was not so much the thrice hourly London Euston-Birmingham and London Euston-Manchester journeys Virgin Trains introduced as a result, but the end-to-end journey time between the two points furthest apart on their line: Euston and Glasgow Central. Typically, the time taken to travel between the two stations is now a shade over 4½ hours, though the best attained is the 1630 weekdays departure northbound, which calls at Preston only and manages the fastest-ever journey time of 4:10. This equates to an average speed of 96.3mph and from December comes down to four hours and 8 minutes.

Thanks to the nice people at Virgin Trains, I was recently given the opportunity to undertake a return trip between Euston and Glasgow, for the purposes of this blog. I opted to travel on trains that offered the Breakfast and Evening Meal menus. Having travelled for the first time aboard a Virgin Trains' Pendolino during the 2005 LEYTR Railrover with m’colleague, I was staggered to see that every item of food and drink is completely free of charge to those travelling first class. Having grown up on the other side of the country, where Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) and now National Express East Coast (NXEC) operated my Anglo-Scottish train service, the only gratuities those travelling in first class were afforded comprised biscuits, Pretzels, fruit, tea/coffee and bottled water.

It's incredible to think that the London terminal shown here can be linked with Glasgow Central in just 4:10.

As a leisure traveller on Britain’s rail network, I am quite happy to travel the longer way round if it means I’ll enjoy my journey more. As I see it, for the additional money paid to travel first class, the more freebies you receive the better. If you live in Grantham and want to travel to Edinburgh on business, quite frankly my requirements won’t feature and you’ll consequently pay NXEC ’s fare for a direct train journey between the two places and simply appreciate what you’re offered for free while travelling in first class.

Of course gluttony was not my sole reason for undertaking this journey on Thursday 15 October. I’ve only travelled on a Pendolino twice: firstly a return trip between Euston-Manchester Piccadilly that formed part of our Railrover trip and secondly a single trip between Euston-Birmingham New Street in March 2008. I particularly enjoyed the ambiance within the first-class carriages, with their airline-style narrow windows and free radio channels. Bringing things up-to-date, free wi-fi is now offered to first-class passengers, so too are free papers on weekdays, along with the Breakfast and Evening Meal menus.

A statue of the Robert Stephenson, son of famed George Stephenson. Robert was chief engineer for the London & Birmingham Railway and was responsible for building the main line into Euston back in 1833. His statue stands in Euston Square.

I remember reading Barry Doe’s column in RAIL a few months ago in which he promoted rail travel exceptionally well over all other modes. Unlike a plane, coach, bus or private car, train travellers can be incredibly productive with their time; they can leisurely stroll around the carriage; can stop off en route (with the correct type of ticket) to meet friends or take in an impromptu meeting; can make phone calls and connect to the Internet; can decide to make a last-minute trip with seconds to spare and generally do not have to travel miles outside of towns and cities to board their service.

Having been given the ‘green light’ for my expedition, I visited the excellent NXEC website to look at ticket options to get me to London. My northbound Virgin Trains service departed Euston at 0930, so I’d need to arrive in King’s Cross right slap-bang in the middle of commuter time. This would mean cheap, advance-purchase tickets would not be available. I was right. After the 0610 ex Peterborough, the next 7 NXEC departures only offered a Standard Single fare of £43 as the cheapest; by contrast, setting my alarm to sound at silly o’ clock in order to catch the 0610 (first non-stop service of the day) would see me only be charged £9.35.

Looking at returns back to Peterborough later in the day, I was very pleased to see that NXEC’s 2200 ex King’s Cross was showing a £9.35 single, too. I think it’s worth pointing out that £9.35 is currently the cheapest Advance Single NXEC offer and has been at this level for almost two years. Consequently, I booked both tickets and effectively paid £18.70 for a day return fare between Peterborough and London, or 12.3p per mile. Exceptional value.

What first struck me was the hive of activity there was to be found at Peterborough station shortly before 0600. The city famous for its ‘Posh’ football team, its celebrated nineteenth century poet John Clare and having produced the co-founder of Rolls Royce, seemed to be experiencing a mass exodus of people travelling to London. Commuters here have two train services from which to choose: First Capital Connect’s (FCC) stopping trains and NXEC ’s direct services. Obviously, the latter’s services transport you to London in around 50 minutes and so are that little bit more expensive (about £2k more p/a for a season ticket), though first and last departures aren’t as early and late as FCC’s.

The 0610 is NXEC’s first of the day, and this morning was formed of a Class 91 that had travelled empty from the company’s Bounds Green depot in North London. The train was on Platform 2 ready and waiting long before I made it onto the platform with a good fifteen minutes to spare before departure. The nine-car train was very well loaded, too, so I was shocked that with less than four days to go before I booked my tickets for today, a £9.35 fare was still offered.

We departed punctually and arrived into London King’s Cross three minutes ahead of schedule, at 0657. I now needed to walk to neighbouring Euston station, further west along the busy and congested Euston Road. I’ve made this journey on a few occasions but never timed it. I comfortably arrived at the ticket hall in Euston 12 minutes after leaving my train at King’s Cross. I’d not realised the close proximity Euston has with King’s Cross, and especially St. Pancras International, which is even nearer. The localities of the three terminal stations does lend itself to some quarters in the rail industry who believe that a high-speed rail terminal in central London could be based underground and linked directly to all three stations. Throw in a few travelators and this could cut interchange times by at least half.

Something else you don't get free on other operators' services: spirits. Here is my first gin & tonic of the day - a double measure being as standard on Virgin Trains. You'll notice the clever product placement - their V-Mix indian tonic water.

There was some confusion initially over the tickets I’d come to collect from Virgin Trains at Euston. The ticket clerk who initially dealt with my request seemed a little agitated and refused point-blank to make eye contact throughout our brief discussion. With no tickets to be found, he sent me to the main station reception, where the chap manning the desk therein would presumably look in the same place as my clerk had been looking to see if he could spot something the first chap couldn’t. Happily, all was sorted in the end and the tickets were handed over.

With over two hours until my 0930 train to Glasgow, I made haste to the First Class Lounge located on the first floor of the main station concourse. It was here, back in 2005, that m’colleague and I had chosen to undertake a Top Gear-style race from Basingstoke. I’d opted to stay on the then-named Virgin Cross Country service we’d boarded in Bournemouth to Reading, where I’d change onto a First Great Western ‘Adelante’ to Paddington and then Metroline’s Service 205 bus to Euston. M’colleage had other ideas; he caught a South West Trains' service to Waterloo and then the Northern Line to Euston, where annoyingly he beat me to our rendez-vous point – the First Class Lounge – by seconds. He tells a slightly different story to mine: that he’d been there ‘literally hours’, but I know a breathless LEYTR Editor when I see one, nonchalantly sipping a gin and tonic while trying to hide his burn-out at having ascended the steps at a fair old lick!

And what a difference the First Class Lounge continues to make to the rest of the station! It’s undergone a massive re-vamp since 2005, reopening in May this year, and looks a lot brighter, lighter and more airy. With the time being 0730, light breakfast nibbles were on offer: three large trays, each offering a pastry of some sort: mini butter croissants, mini pain au chocolats and mini fruit croissants. Tea, coffee, orange juice and hot chocolate were also on offer and it was a case of simply helping yourself. I picked up a copy of The Times and sat in front of a huge flat-screen TV watching BBC Breakfast.

Virtually everyone in the lounge was male – a good 50% of them were in pin-stripe suits, too, catching up with the news of the day over a coffee before their train took them north-west for a meeting or two. By comparison, I was dressed in jeans (Levi 501s – thought I ought to make the effort!), had no laptop, no briefcase full of important documents, and had surrounded myself with as many freebies as looked plausible.

Having started my third cup of tea of the day and having read that WH Smith had posted very good trading figures for the last year (their first store opened in Euston), word reached me that the later, more expensive NXEC trains arriving from Peterborough were, well, not arriving, since there had been a ‘major signal failure’ in North London and delays of an hour were being experienced. Not in a very long time had I been so pleased of sleep deprivation the night before!

The first WH Smith store was founded here at Euston. The station currently boasts two examples.

Shortly before 0900 I left the opulence I’d called home for the past ninety minutes and headed into Euston Square to take some photos of the station entrance. On the last occasion I’d had time here, one of the new air-conditioned ‘S Stock’ Tube trains was ‘parked’ on the lawn, showing off its modern credentials. I remember reading that the order placed for 191 of these trains (or 1,395 individual carriages) was the largest-ever order for rolling stock made in the UK. They’re due to roll out from next year, replacing all Underground trains on the Metropolitan, District, Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines.

Platform 12 stables my Pendolino: 39023 'Virgin Glory'.

Back to my journey and around twenty minutes prior to departure the platform for my train was announced. The journey passengers here have to make to their chariots is not a pleasant one. Narrow, dull surroundings and an undercover platform don’t make for a good comparison to adjacent St.Pancras International, or even King’s Cross. The exterior of Euston station is very unimposing. Not so, prior to its renovation during the 1960s, when the dominant Doric Arch stood proudly before the station entrance. Only cost precluded developers from moving it to another site in the area - £12k to demolish compared with £190k to move and re-erect. It was therefore knocked down and dumped in canals in the area.

Having passed through the ticket checks and onto my platform I walked the full length of Platform 12 and took some photos of trains stabled here. I even managed to get a Pendolino to yawn for me!

The penultimate time I left from here was during the 2005 LEYTR Railrover when we both boarded the First ScotRail Sleeper to Fort William. I was allocated the first birth in the first carriage of the 13-car train, hauled to Edinburgh by an EWS Class 90. Had much changed I wondered? To be honest I had no idea – it was over 5 years ago. Acting as a reminder to that very enjoyable week-long holiday, the Sleeper train was visible, stabled in the easternmost platform.

I hadn’t been given a reserved seat and so chose to sit in Coach G on an individual seat, facing forwards. All tables had been laid with a china mug sat on a small plate-cum-saucer, with a selection of cutlery wrapped in a napkin, along with a condiment container and menu. The menu was dated September-November 2009 and detailed all meals offered, even those not available on certain trains.

The Breakfast Menu consisted of fresh orange or grapefruit juice, selected cereals, items from the Bakery Basket and then one of the main breakfast dishes: Great British Breakfast, vegetarian breakfast, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, fresh fruit bowl and three different types of hot breakfast roll. On the rear of the menu was the drinks list and while alcohol wasn ’t available on trains offering the Breakfast Menu, everything else was. My 0930 departure was the last northbound train of the day to offer the Breakfast Menu. In total 4 departures to Scotland exEuston serve breakfast: 0547, 0730, 0830, 0930, with 4 departing north from Birmingham New Street: 0617, 0719, 0820, 0920. Southbound trains offering breakfast are all departures up to 0840 and also the 0940 ex Glasgow.

The arrangement on all tables in first class is identical to this. Very welcoming.

The 0930 ex Euston is booked to attain a journey time of 4:31 to Glasgow Central and calls at Warrington Bank Quay, Wigan North Western, Preston, Lancaster, Penrith, Carlisle and its scheduled arrival at Glasgow Central is at 1401. The fastest section appeared to be the first, between Euston–Warrington: 182 miles in 104 minutes, equating to an average of 105mph – and we almost achieved this, though unfortunately pulled into Warrington 1 minute late at 1115. We’d slowed while passing Stafford bang on time at 1045, though slowing again at Crewe at 1101, when we were booked to pass two minutes earlier.

By now I’d had some toast, orange juice and a very nice cup of tea. I remember not too long ago that ‘train tea’ used to taste dire and that it was always more hygienic to drink left-handed out of the cup for fear of catching some nasty disease. Nowadays – and for some time – crockery is spotless, cutlery glistens and UHT milk has been banned on virtually all trains offering first-class meals and drinks. During the Railrover 5 years ago, I can’t remember drinking any tea made with generic UHT milk; instead that stuff in tiny cartons beginning with M was used – still UHT but without the nasty taste it leaves. I ordered the Great British Breakfast almost as soon as we’d departed Euston. A member of crew walked through first class asking everyone which option they’d like. The breakfast itself wasn’t as substantial as I’d been hoping, though I did turn down the tomato in favour of additional bacon.

Free-range and Fairtrade items are used extensively throughout Virgin’s menu and they should be congratulated for this. While many of us are guided by price – more so now than a few years ago – Virgin have remained true to their brand and carried on regardless. I understand Stagecoach chief executive Brian Souter, whose company holds a 49% stake in Virgin Trains, has been keen for Virgin to adopt the rationalisation measures his rail companies have introduced and that thus far this has been resisted. It would be so easy to purchase the cheapest bacon and sausages for use in its Breakfast Menu, just to save a thousand pounds or two a year, but this wouldn’t be reinstated as quickly as it was lost.

First class feels that little more exclusive inside a Virgin Trains service. The company still offers everything from its menu completely free to first-class ticket holders.

We had a crew change at Preston, with a Preston crew leaving us for a mixture of Scottish and Lancastrian accents. We were 5 minutes late leaving Preston (1200) and ran our latest by Penrith – 6 minutes. This was the first time the train manager made reference to a delay, apologising for any in convenience this may have.

By now the crew was busy offering items from the Light Bites Menu: either a coronation chargrilled chicken roll or a Wensleydale and caramelised carrot roll, followed by either a Chocolate Indulgence slice or seasonal fresh fruit. I opted for the chicken roll and Chocolate Indulgence slice. Both were very nice indeed; the chicken had the edge in the taste stakes; the chocolate slice tasted like a generic chocolate chip-infested sponge. Both were very nice though. Since the Breakfast Menu had left the train with the first crew at Preston, alcohol was now on the menu and the drinks trolley was soon passed through. It seems almost unnatural to choose absolutely anything in sight, though I soon got over my apprehension and asked for a gin and tonic. All Virgin’s spirits come in double measures; again, as with the free-range and Fairtrade breakfast items, it would be so easy to half the spirit bottles to save a couple of grand a year, but Virgin has resisted. I suspect such large quantities can be ordered at excellent prices and that halving the quantity may not halve the price.

Breakfast was very tasty though not as substantial as I was hoping.

Visitations by the drinks trolley and the tea and coffee jugs were very frequent indeed throughout the rest of the journey. The staff were all pleasant and polite and seemed genuinely contented in their work. Meanwhile, we were meandering through the eastern outreaches of the Lake District after passing north of Lancaster – with John Shaw/Travellers Choice’s yard immediately to the east of the WCML at Carnforth. For much of the rest of the route, the line is hugged by the M6 motorway and the speed my Class 390 ‘Pendolino’ is travelling at is only now truly understood. That said, it is this section that sees the average speed of 105mph between London-Warrington reduce to the overall average of 88.8mph for this specific journey (401.25 miles in 271 minutes), although the scenery makes up for the reduction in speed. We were still travelling at almost 20mph faster than vehicles on the M6 are permitted.

At this point I tried to detail on my trusty notepad my overall thoughts of the service thus far. Initially, the Virgin employee in the ticket hall hadn’t been as helpful as he could have been and I had the impression he’d just wanted to get rid of me to the main station reception. I wasn ’t expecting eye contact, though it is often a sign that you’re at least engaging properly with the person you’re speaking to. The First Class Lounge had been excellent – relaxing and pleasant. The boarding procedure had been faultless and Virgin can’t really be blamed for the perceived dowdiness of Euston’s boarding gates. I wasn’t actually welcomed to my seat and only spoke with a member of crew when asked what breakfast option I’d like. First-time travellers in first class won’t know the procedure and it wasn’t explained to me about the options available in the menu, though I soon spotted what to do.

Crew members regularly patrolled the carriages and announcements were clear, if a little rushed at times. I hope residents in Warrington really appreciate the service they now receive – next stop London at 105mph, every hour, is effectively what they have. I know it’s been a long time coming and that problems still occur on the line with Network Rail struggling to get to grips with the upgraded route, but it is a truly excellent service between these two points. Should High Speed 2 get the go-ahead, average speed is likely to be around 186mph, meaning this would potentially see Euston–Warrington in 59 minutes (though Warrington won’t feature on HS2).

In what seemed like no time at all, though the equivalent of two feature-length movies, we were slowing on our approach into Glasgow Central station. Our 1401 arrival was beaten by two minutes, though only as far as the train was concerned; the doors weren’t unlocked for another minute, making the time precisely 1400 as the first passengers stepped on the platform. I felt a strange sensation: refreshed yet incredibly bloated through the quantity of food I’d gorged. I wandered against the tide of passengers to the ‘blunt’ end in order to photograph the train with the easternmost canopy that forms part of Glasgow Central’s impressive train shed basking in glorious autumnal sunshine.

39023 on Platform 2 in Glasgow Central. The sunshine had stopped. Clouds had gathered but any rain forecast held off.

Having walked onto the station concourse, I realised that I hadn’t actually been to Glasgow Central station before. I’d not really thought about it until now. The station itself is very grand, and recently been awarded the prestigious title of 2009 Major & Overall Station of the Year Award at the National Rail Awards ceremony held on 17 September. The station dates back to July 1879 when it was opened by the Caledonian Railway. Today, the station is the busiest outside of London, handling over 21 million journeys every year. The ease at which access is gained to/from the main city centre streets is what impressed me most about the place. You can clearly see the main platforms from the adjacent streets, and access is relatively straightforward since ticket barriers have not yet been installed.

Very impressive - Glasgow Central is certainly not as unassuming at London Euston!

The other aspect of the station that immediately struck me was the number of places served from here. Local suburban First ScotRail trains depart from all platforms, including the low-level ones, while NXEC and Virgin’s long-distance routes are also thrown into the mix. Add to this the First ScotRail sleeper services and the station must boast one of the most extensive lists of places served in the UK.

My return service departed at 1640, though I spent my time productively, photographing the station from many angles from the city centre streets, as well as having a ride on the Glasgow Underground, also known as the Clockwork Orange. A write-up of this particular part of the day will appear separately.

One of the ‘downers’ of the day was the realisation there was no First Class Lounge for Virgin passengers at Glasgow Central. I remember vividly m’colleague and I making use of the one at Manchester Piccadilly, and witnessing down below stars of TV show Emmerdale posing for photos with adoring fans on the concourse.

However, we were permitted to board the train twenty minutes before departure and I headed towards what was now the ‘sharp’ end for a similar shot though on Platform 1 this time, and with the sun’s position altered slightly. I think the Pendolino must have been a little tired as it was mid-yawn as I took the photo.

A yawning Pendolino - 390 014; perhaps it was trying to capture the dead phesant on the front?

Also in the photo is a dead pheasant, stuck to the windscreen. Its carcass must have travelled well over 400 miles since it was stuck to the London-facing end of the train, i.e. that which had not been travelling head-on into the wind and any birds that may have got trapped in the vacuum. I’ll admit to not having spotted it when I took the photo, nor did I spot it while stood on the platform.

My return journey to London Euston would take thirteen minutes longer than my northbound equivalent. At 4:44 additional stations were included: Motherwell (pick-up only), Oxenholme and Milton Keynes. We glided out of Glasgow Central punctually and headed south. I’d wanted to sit on the right-hand side of the train, but the low sun would have meant I’d either have to put up with it glaring into my face or I’d need to pull the blind almost all the way down, so I chose to sit on the left-hand side and witness the same scenery as that I’d been photographing when heading north.

Within what seemed like seconds, a member of crew approached me and asked if I’d like the hot or cold option from the Evening Meal Menu. As with the northbound menu requirement, the crew member assumed I knew what the situation was with regard to food on board, when many simply won’t have grasped this; some may not even have had time to read the menu. I’m in no way criticising the time length of time taken before being approached, but a little more explanation of my options would have been better. The Evening Meal Menu offers either pie & mash, curried winter vegetables and rice, a coronation chargrilled chicken roll or a Wensleydale and caramelised roll. The latter two featured on the Light Bite Menu. For dessert, the choice was between cinnamon cheesecake with rhubarb glaze and this week’s selection of cheese and biscuits, followed by fruit.

As I’d realised was now customary, the drinks trolley and tea/coffee flasks were brought round on numerous occasions in addition to the above. I opted for a white wine initially. Having left Motherwell, the main course was served – pie & mash was my choice and by far the best meal of the day. Excellent. As with breakfast, only the best ingredients had been used and British beef was guaranteed. I’ve eaten pie & mash on a few occasions (I’m not a great lover) but this was the best I’d ever tasted. A friend literally exists on pie & mash from shops in the East End of London and he claimed that I couldn’t rate that I’d sampled on board Virgin Trains as the best until I’d been to one of those; but since I haven’t, I’m happy to put on record that Virgin Trains' pie & mash is the best I’ve tasted.

The best meal of the day - pie and mash.

It went very well with the white wine, as did the selection of cheeses – two large chunks of white and red cheese on Scottish oatcakes were brought out. No information was given as to the type of cheese offered. Both were very nice indeed though. I do remember partaking of the Evening Meal Menu from Manchester Piccadilly back in 2005 and that a more substantial choice was offered, including Belgian chocolates and wine from fluted glasses. Virgin alter their menus every three months or so to keep the ideas fresh; who knows, the Brie and red grape sandwiches I sampled five years ago might be back on the menu by Christmas?

It was getting dark outside now and rather selfishly my thoughts turned to my connection back in central London. My 1640 train was to form the 2124 arrival at Euston and I then had 36 minutes before my 2200 NXEC train departed King’s Cross for Peterborough. Having timed my walk betwixt both termini to be a conservative 12 minutes earlier in the day, I was prepared to tolerate an arrival time of 2145, or a delay of up to a maximum of 21 minutes. In the event I had nothing to fear as we arrived into Euston 7 minutes early – and this despite leaving Milton Keynes 1 minute late.

Back to the journey and as darkness fell I didn’t feel too hard-done-by not sitting on the right of the train, facing the west. The speed at which you travel is somewhat lost in the dark on a train, though I always feel conversely it’s accentuated on a bus or coach. My first-class carriage, Coach H, acted as the Quiet Coach throughout the journey and conformed well, mainly since there was only a maximum of five people in it at any time during the journey. A few glasses of white wine later and I was feeling very merry indeed.

I tried to compare train travel with that offered by budget airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet. Both have compelling cases for attracting different types of patronage. Budget airlines can link Glasgow with central London in less than an hour, though check-in can add significant time onto the duration, while airport parking continues to be extortionate. Add to this that most airports bearing the name of a major city aren’t actually in that city at all (or nowhere near the centre of it!) and a transfer by surface transport adds further time. You have worries about lost luggage, strict guidelines about liquids on board planes and delays as a result of inclement weather to deal with.

On rails, there is no check-in, no maximum allowance for luggage, no 20-mile transfer to the terminal, no need to hand your luggage to a conveyor belt, and in thick fog trains generally travel at the same speed as when all is clear. Budget airlines do offer very inviting advance fares – the best I could find using the Virgin Trains website for the return journey I made was £87 each way; on the day, a turn-up-and-go (Anytime) ticket costs £399 return. Quite a difference! Even adding an outrageously-priced sandwich at 30,000 feet and the add-ons from paying by credit card and having luggage for the hold, budget airlines do not charge anywhere near this amount for a comparative journey. That said, it is impossible to just turn up at an Luton Airport an hour before a plane leaves for Glasgow and ask for a ticket. If this could take place, I wonder at what price this ticket would be pitched?

Commuters who want to clear their emails before they reach the office would never choose the plane over the train: there is no Internet connection in the clouds – in fact mobile phones must be switched off during take-off and landing and a flight of less than 1 hour’s duration is too short for any meaningful work to be undertaken on a battery-operated laptop. No sooner have you turned it on than you’re preparing to land and need to stow it under your seat. Rail commuters rightly criticise train operators for the levels at which they increase their season ticket, though in reality, they offer very good value when compared to driving into a major city and adding parking costs on top.

I’m lucky that my daily commute is a total of 3.2 miles and can be done easily on a pedal cycle. But then I don’t earn the sort of wages to be able to afford an Anytime First return on Virgin Trains to Glasgow from Euston.

The Scottish crew left my train at Preston and was replaced by London-based employees, two of which – both Asian ladies – were the most polite and courteous I encountered during today’s services.

The last hour or so of my journey was what I call “clear-up time”, when those working on board the train spend an eternity replacing cutlery and crockery with fresh examples. Though on this particular journey, all items were removed from all tables, save the condiment container and place mats. Having thought about it, something similar happened as we approached Glasgow this morning. It may well be Virgin policy to remove everything only to re-lay it before the next journey, even if it’s within an hour of arrival at the terminus.

My southbound journey of 401.25 miles from Glasgow Central to London Euston was booked to take 4:44, averaging 84.8mph, whereas this was increased to 86.9mph as a result of our early arrival – still some way to go to beat the maximum average speed of 96.3mph attained by the 1630 ex Euston on weekdays. That will have to be a journey to do, perhaps next year. We’re considering a 2010 LEYTR Railrover you know!

As I mentioned earlier, our arrival into Euston at 2117 – seven minutes ahead of schedule – meant I easily made my 2200 NXEC HST back to Peterborough. I jokingly text a friend to say that I’d “come down to earth with a bump” while onboard what he describes as a ‘tram’ – my NXEC HST at King’s Cross. The standard-class seating within all NXEC’s trains, be they Class 91s or ‘trams’, is excellent – the Mallard upgrade scheme was much-needed and the foresight of erstwhile GNER has paid dividends for comfort and style – especially when compared to standard-class seating in other train operating company’s HSTs. Having travelled 802.5 miles in relative solidarity, weighted on hand-and-foot, with everything being free of charge, while undertaking one of the fastest-ever railway journey times between London and Glasgow, my crowded carriage to Peterborough was quite a shock!

A selection of cheeses, Scottish oatcakes, butter, grapes and a tea - you don't get this for free in NXEC's first-class carriages!

In terms of average speed, 94.2mph was attained by my last train of the day: 72.25 miles in 46 minutes to be precise, faster than the two Virgin Trains I’d just travelled on, though importantly not over comparative sections. Peterborough is the first stop for most NXEC trains leaving London (94.2mph), while Warrington Bank Quay is for most Glasgow trains leaving Euston (105.0mph). And it’s thanks to the recent upgrade of the West Coast Main Line that the comparative gap has widened considerably. I said I wanted to sample the benefits of the £9 billion upgrade and I believe I did. Being able to ‘nip’ to Glasgow in less time than it takes a National Express coach to travel between London and Lincoln is very impressive indeed. The copious amount of free food and drink was incidental, though very much welcome.

As we exclusively revelated on Sunday, the media still comments about poor performance on Virgin’s West Coast rail franchise, despite the £9bn upgrade of the route. That may be a thing of the past. Virgin has just recorded its best-ever performance of 93.3% of trains ontime – the highest since it took over the West Coast rail franchise in March 1997 and average performance over the last three months is over 90%.

The ambience in Virgin's first-class coaches is very nice. The company's red livery is not extended to the decor.

Long may Virgin Trains continue to provide such an excellent service in the way and manner they’ve carved out! (GL)

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

SVBM Summer Open Weekend

"What is it about wrapping a hard-boiled egg in sausage meat and breadcrumbs that suddenly makes it Scottish?"

With the answer to this and a couple of less important posers at the forefront of our minds, the LEYTR did sally forth to Scotland, during which time we'd attend the annual Scottish Vintage Bus Museum (SVBM) rally on the second of its two open days.

We chose to travel to Edinburgh from Hull. Being fairly stingy when it comes to travel, we'd been downhearted back in June when we booked our overnight accommodation in Scotland's capital city, that the most obvious modes of transport were either not forthcoming with suitable journey options that best-fitted our three days away, or those that purport to offer fares from £1 were in effect offering single fares 2,500% greater!

So good old dependable National Express it was. If we were going to be stung for a few quid, it might as well be for travel in a coach and not a Scania/Enviro400! The route linking Hull with Edinburgh is one of the best I've travelled on to date. I enjoy Service 534 for a few reasons: the loadings are not as heavy as, say, London-Bristol; the service is operated by 'Scotland's Driving Force' - Park's of Hamilton, who provide at least modern, air-conditioned (if not very clean!) coaches; and the route takes in areas of England that other NX services do not frequently call. Beverley, for example, only has this solitary coach service since March, when NX curtailed all its Service 562 journeys at Hull.

Hull really has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. Its Paragon Interchange - despite recent reports of errors in Braille signage - really is excellent, with the initial teething problems reported over its forthcoming departures screens seemingly fixed now. Stagecoach has ensured a decent number of cascaded vehicles now operate here to reduce its fleet's average age - especially apt in this, its historic year.

Some Braille signage translated this sign as Bay One Deft!

From Hull, our coach travels direct to Beverley, calling at the minster-town's bus station. You can't cover this section of route by any other scheduled coach service, nor the section hereafter to York. One of the previous occasions I'd travelled aboard Service 534, a short-cut was utilised just north of York station, that saw the driver lower the vehicle's suspension in order for us to squeeze under a very low bridge. No such excitement today, with our Glaswegian driver opting to stick to the more traditional trunk route.

As I'd expected, Park's of Hamilton had provided us with a fairly new vehicle - a Volvo B12B with Plaxton's Panther C49Ft body, registered LSK 506, being new to them in September 2006. While the climate control was excellent and the leather trim a welcome sight, the vehicle interior's cleanliness lead a lot to be desired! The dirt wasn't a case of the driver choosing not to thoroughly clean the coach out last night while overnighting at the hotel in Hull, more a case of a very long-overdue deep clean needed!

As predicted we were very lightly loaded throughout, travelling to Thirsk thence to Middlesborough, Sunderland and Newcastle. Here a mid-journey refreshment break is taken and for security reasons, through passengers are turfed out into the elements while the coach is locked. We wandered to the nearby train station for a nosey, but there was nothing out of the ordinary therein, so meandered back having a game of 'spot as many Go North East liveries in 2 minutes as you can!'

Seen here during the mid-journey refreshment break in Newcastle.

The most popular section of Service 534 is between Newcastle and Edinburgh and from here we were our busiest with about thirty soles aboard. I dozed off at this point and awoke in the Restalrig suburb of Edinburgh, en route to the city's bus station, just off Princes Street. The last time I travelled aboard Service 534 it was double-manned throughout and additionally operated via Hull Docks. It would appear the service is now wholly one-manned and the Hull Docks extension was removed in 2008 due to low patronage and increased security.

As with all occasions we visit Edinburgh, we'd booked into the Heriot-Watt University at Riccarton, to the far-west of the city, which necessitates a trip aboard one of Lothian's excellent bus services. We generally catch Service 25, which is Plaxton President/ADL Trident-operated, running to a ten-minute frequency. Today was no different and having tendered the exact fare for a day ticket (a very reasonable £3), we took a seat in readiness for the 35-minute journey.

Absolutely spotless - Lothian Buses once again surpassed our expectations.

In my opinion, Lothian Buses is the last-remaining large bus fleet that operates in a manner that is both traditional and yet adaptive to the current market trends. Their extensive network of radiating bus services, operating to high frequencies are typical of today's way of doing things, yet their vehicles are absolutely spotless inside. Each bus is mopped out each night (even Trent Barton do not do this), the interior fluorescent casings are removed each month and cleaned and all evidence of graffiti is removed. Our bus - an 04-reg - actually smelt new inside. Quite phenomenal.

Having dumped our things in our rooms forming part of the Heriot-Watt University, set in the opulent surroundings of well-landscaped grounds with the northern tip of the Southern Uplands clearly visible, we returned to the city centre to have a nosy around. It's fair to say that Princes Street is a right old mess at the moment, being closed for some months while work is underway to build the city's new tram network. Having said this, and considering the Edinburgh Festival and its Fringe were in full-swing, congestion was minimal, it has to be said. Our journey times throughout our long weekend were typical to those stated in Lothian's publicity and not once did we find ourselves in excessive congestion.

Somewhere amongst the JCBs and traffic bollards is Princes Street.

Sunday saw is travel into the city centre again in order to catch the 0955 First ScotRail train service to Dunfermline Town, where we would ascend the hill into the town centre and catch one of the free buses laid on by the SVBM to transport us to their premises, within the M90 Commerce Park at Lathalmond.

There are a number of ways those basing themselves at the Heriot-Watt University at Riccarton can travel to Dunfermline, though on a Sunday the options are much-reduced! Stagecoach in Fife operate a very handy hourly service from Riccarton to Inverkeithing via the Ferrytoll and Edinburgh Airport, though annoyingly not on Sundays. It would mean a trip into central Edinburgh then.

Lothian offer two services into the city centre at weekends: Services 25 and 34, which both operate along the arterial Calder Road, with Service 25 continuing to the city centre via Gorgie and Service 34 heading southwest to Slateford before bearing northeast to the city centre via Shandon and Fountainbridge. We caught the 0900 departure on Service 25 with a view to catching First ScotRail's 0955 to Dunfermline Town for 1030. This was duly caught and was formed of a Class 170 'Turbostar', namely 170459.

We made haste northwest towards the Forth Bridge, which we crossed on the 'up' line with a speed restriction imposed. This caused us a few minutes' delay by the time we'd arrived at Dunfermline Town. From here, it's a steady walk uphill to the town centre. The Scottish Vintage Bus Museum's (SVBM) free shuttle service operated half-hourly at 00 and 30 from outside the town centre fire station. Our vehicle arrived just as the heavens opened. We were to travel aboard WG 9180, a Leyland Titan TD7 in W Alexander's livery. A ride aboard this vehicle is one of the main reasons I make a religious pilgrimage to the SVBM at least bi-annually: where else could you ride on a vehicle like this? It doesn't visit Showbus, Cobham, Fleetwood or North Weald. Many of its historic sisters that were operating the shuttle services likewise do not travel very far afield.

This lowbridge Leyland Titan TD7 was the vehicle in which m'colleague travelled to the rally two years ago.

The other reason why I enjoy the SVBM open weekend so much is the location of the site. Sure enough, its address - the M90 Commerce Park - conjures up images of a dodgy-looking industrial estate with e-coli vans serving what purports to be red meat at the road side, but up here in Bonnie Scotland, things are a little different. If there was an award for the most picturesque setting for an industrial estate, that of the M90 Commerce Park at Lathalmond would surely win.

The bus ride from central Dunfermline to the site takes about 10 minutes and necessitates a fairly steady climb, during which the Rennies depot is passed on the left. With the exception of some old-looking deckers in Stagecoach livery in the yard, there are no other openly noticeably signs that one of the 'big five' is in charge. One of the timetables Rennies produces is identical to that Stagecoach provide throughout the UK, although its colours are different and nowhere is the 'S-word' mentioned.

Plenty of modern vehicles attend, including this patriotic Volvo B9TL/Wright Eclipse Gemini, operated by First.

The entrance for the rally today was £6. Money very well-spent in my opinion. Once in the grounds, it was as it is at any other bus rally really, everyone disperses into the crowd and you 'do your own thing' (caravanners say this a lot!). As with 2007, so many vehicles turned up, some were double-parked meaning a photo was impossible. Owing to the nature of the site and where the vehicles are parked, some are always in shadow, or your photo is always taken directly into the sunlight. The trade stalls are held within the large building at the top of a mound to the north of the site, named the Bus Station. A large number of stalls were in attendance this year and it was nice to see a few same faces manning them. I made a good contact at one of the stalls as I handed over £17.25!

One of the SVBM's collection is this Alexander M-type-bodied Seddon Pennine, which has links to the LEYTR area as it used to operate Anglo-Scottish services calling at Stamford and Grantham! Back in 1976 the SBG was removing seats for additional legroom - this is C42Ft

There are tours running to nearby localities throughout the day, plus the half-hourly shuttle service to Dunfermline and the internal service, which is provided by a plethora of vehicles. Despite the large number of vehicles attending, and the relatively few tours operating, the organisation leads a lot to be desired. A bus would pull up and no announcement would be made of its destination. The internal services would carry a board in their windscreens, but no other route would. Was it the tour as scheduled or was it a Dunfermline? The cry of its destination was only heard after a few minutes. To complicate matters further, some of the Dunfermlines had duplicates, too, which when added to the mix caused further uncertainties.

As ever, the Lothian collection was present and turned out in a manner befitting the current operation.

Perhaps those in charge of dispatch should visit the twice-yearly Lincolnshire Vintage Vehicle Society bus rally, which is a model of how departures should be run.

As ever the day lived up to my expectations and I made a couple of not-so-cheap purchases and added a further three to my tie collection.

We caught the 1515 shuttle back to Dunfermline and then went in search of its bus station. A relatively new one has been built near Queen Anne Street, replacing that which backed onto Carnegie Drive, under the shopping centre. It seemed very impressive. Timetable information was most forthcoming for an un-manned site (on Sundays). Rather than wander back to the train station, we opted to catch the 1555 Service 80C, which would drop us off outside. It was our first Stagecoach journey of the jaunt and the vehicle's interior was equally as clean as can be found within the confines of Lothian's fleet; the only difference was that the saloon heaters were stuck on hot and we started to bake.

A livery I've not seen before is worn here - a kind of Scottish Citylink-style but with Strathtay lettering.

Four minutes later and we were outside cooling down. Trains back to Edinburgh operate not as you'd expect and are sufficient to ensure numerous passengers (tourists) stand on the wrong platform. The frequency is roughly hourly and yet alternate journey times take almost three-times as long as the others. Why? Well as I've coined it, the 'Fife Loop' is the culprit. Trains operating the clockwise loops travel as directly as possible between Edinburgh and Dunfermline, then north to Kirkcaldy on the coast and back south to Edinburgh, crossing the Forth. In this direction, travel from Dunfermline to Edinburgh takes 1:30. Trains operating the anti-clockwise loop manage a 37 minute journey time. The 1626 First ScotRail service is a clockwise loop, so more 'metals' for your money!

Having arrived in Edinburgh at 1756 we went for a spot of lunch before visiting the Vue cinema within the Omni complex to watch the re-make of The Taking of Pelham 123. A write-up will appear in due course.

We returned aboard Lothian's Service 34 at 2255, being used was a Volvo B9TL/Wrightbus Eclipse Gemini, though the least said about this journey the better!

Our chariot for the 0908 Riccarton-Ferrytoll service, provided by Stagecoach's Dunfermline depot. It's a shame this service doesn't operate on Sundays.

The following morning, by way of a change, we utilised Stagecoach in Fife's handy link from Riccarton to the Ferrytoll and caught the 0908 Service 747. Again, the saloon heat was stuck on hot as we awaited our departure time. The heavens had opened, too, which didn't cause us alarm until the windscreen wipers ceased operating. The driver tried everything and with only us on the bus I was wondering what the drill would be. Dunfermline depot (who operate the service) isn't exactly just down the road. During a phone conversation with the depot, the driver was presumably told to pummel the dashboard with his fist! As he was smacking the dashboard for all his worth, I remember turning my head in disbelief! The things people will try. Astonishingly, it worked and the wipers of 34729 (SP05 ELH), an ADL Dart SLF/Plaxton Pointer resumed operation! It really was a miracle - and something for those who drive this type of vehicle to bare in mind!

Stagecoach operate four buses an hour into Edinburgh using these extended Scania tri-axle, 56-seat buses. They're generally allocated to Services 53 & 55 during the day.

We carried on, passing the Royal Bank of Scotland's HQ at South Gyle and diverting into Edinburgh Airport where a fair number boarded. These vehicles have diddly-squat luggage provision, which needs addressing if the amount brought on by three Japanese tourists is anything to go by. We appeared lucky, too, as we passed some vehicles working Service 747 that were Optare Solos!

My favourite sign of the past month: a question mark is missing after 'gear'; 'remembered' is underlined to the left; 'its' is missing an apostrophe; and 'the' is missing between 'and' and 'handbrake'. Car drivers not sure of the concept of leaving a car in gear as a fail-safe should the handbrake faulter need to be told in which gear they need to leave their car - no point selecting 1st if pointing downhill!

The bus heads north to Queensferry and then over the Forth Road Bridge to the Ferrytoll Park & Ride site. Here we alighted with a view to catching the 1025 Stagecoach in Fife Service 55 to Edinburgh, hoping it to be formed of one of the 57-reg, tri-axle integral Scania K270UB6 commuter buses, seating 56 people with high-back leather seats. This duly arrived, formed of 24009 (SP57 CNX). It was a very enjoyable ride, though the advertised free WiFi wasn't working.

24009 approaching the turnaround point at the Ferrytoll Park & Ride site. Over 3,800 departures a week call here.

Having ticked another box, we alighted a few minutes late at Edinburgh bus station. Today's journey, in for 1105, was the first that saw a decent volume of traffic and associated congestion. We had plenty of time though as our coach back to Hull didn't leave until 1230 and when it arrived it did so in Park's of Hamilton livery. We were treated to LSK 495, a Volvo B12M/Jonckheere with sunken central toilet and continental door. Unfortunately, the driver was what I describe as 'a minimalist', doing the absolute bare minimum for his passengers.

A clue to the company who covers Service 534 is given in this photo, taken at Newcastle during our mid-journey refreshment break.

The southbound trip is virtually identical to the north but in reverse. We had a break at Newcastle where we were turfed off, and again sauntered to the city centre but opted for Greggs this time over the train station. It was a quieter run back than coming in terms of passenger volume. We were bang on time though at all stages, actually pulling into Hull's Paragon Interchange a few minutes ahead of our 1955 scheduled arrival.

We didn't manage to answer our opening question (thanks, Al Murray), though we did consider purchasing a deep-fried Mars Bar while away. Interestingly, its saturated fat content is seven-times one of one of those eggs, draped in tartan just because of sausage meat and breadcrumbs! (GL)

Sunday, 9 August 2009

LEYTR's Top 'n' Tail

It had been in the pipeline for some months; a trip linking the two extremities on mainland Britain: John o' Groats to Land's End. But how to do it in our own, special, inimitable way? What was to be the LEYTR crutch? Researching the possible journey options for the greatest dissection of our island possible soon presented the 'angle' we would take:

John o' Groats to Land's End in a manner befitting the current financial downturn, i.e. as cheaply as possible. Time away from our respective employers and offices meant that a caveat was additionally placed upon our strapline: speed. Consequently, the LEYTR Top 'n' Tail jaunt would be done as cheaply and as quickly as possible.

One thing that specifically struck me about other people's John o' Groats to Land's End trips is that virtually all that have been written up only tell half the story. The publicised 874 mile trip forms only one part of a round-robin journey from the valiant traveller's home. He, she or they need to first get to whichever extremity they're to commence from and to then return home from its counterpart location. Our trip aims to cover all of this - with the to/from journeys being made in the same spirit as the main leg, i.e. as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

Day 1 - Saturday 20 June 2009

And so it was that I found myself at a friend's house in Lincoln. I'd travelled there the evening before so that both he and I could be correctly positioned for the day's initial journey, a trip to Scunthorpe by bus: a brand-new Scania/Enviro400 operated by Stagecoach in Lincolnshire to be precise. Service 100 only commenced operation in May 2006 and yet last month the hourly frequency outgrew the Alexander ALX300-bodied MANs that had been operating the route, being replaced with these new Enviro400s. The route forms part of Lincolnshire County Council's InterConnect network of services, which incidentally celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Brand-new Scania/Enviro400 seen in Scunthorpe, having worked the second northbound journey of the day.

We boarded 15507 (FX09 CZW) in Lincoln's City bus station, which formed the 0835 journey to Scunthorpe via Gainsborough. The Enviro400 body, while looking stylish and progressive from the outside, does not have an interior that emulates the same in my opinion. There's far too much rattling and banging for my liking - to think the bus is merely weeks old, too!! The ride comfort is okay though and the special InterConnect livery Stagecoach is starting to apply to its vehicles operating InterConnect services looks very striking (even if it does resemble a Cadbury's Cream Egg wrapper)!

The route is operated by Stagecoach's Gainsborough depot. Unlike Scunthorpe and Lincoln depots, Gainsborough has a few services that conform to the EC Drivers' Hours Regulation and so it made operational sense to take-back all diagrams in readiness for the new vehicles arriving (Lincoln depot did operate one diagram on the service).

We kept to time throughout on this relatively quiet Saturday morning and despite the sunny weather at all times, alighted in Scunthorpe to a heavy downpour.

While Stagecoach may be the dominant operator in Scunthorpe, small independant Hornsby can still be seen in the town, now operating four main service, some of which jointly with Stagecoach.

Our next service was another operated by Stagecoach - their recently improved Service 350, linking Scunthorpe-Barton on Humber-Hull and re-branded FastCat. The service had been hourly with East Yorkshire operating one of the three diagrams. Now, Stagecoach believe that patronage was such that it would double the frequency to half-hourly, though East Yorkshire did not increase their diagram, continuing to operate one vehicle (of the 6 now deployed) to similar timings as before. Stagecoach purchased some new MAN/Enviro300s and an agreed brand and livery was adopted. At the end of March, the FastCat was born.

The Humber FastCat can easily be spotted here. There are many references to cats in the branding and advertising.

The livery is pretty awful - sentiments we understand that are shared by Les Warneford, Stagecoach Bus MD, but you certainly can't argue that the bright orange livery with grey claw marks is striking. East Yorkshire has offered a dedicated vehicle to the route, a Volvo B7RLE/Wrightbus Eclipse Urban, and it too is painted in the orange FastCat livery. Unlike the old 350 timetable, it is now impossible to know which journeys are operated by each operator. Stagecoach's Hull depot now also operates journeys on the service, being allocated two diagrams. This has never occurred before, with Service 350 historically being a RoadCar service.

Stagecoach, EYMS and North Lincolnshire Council have joined forces to ensure publicity is visible at all stops. Every single bus stop flag along the route (even those at far-flung rural outposts) have FastCat-branded flags.

The old departure time was xx10 from Scunthorpe, with the new half-hourly departures at xx15 and xx45. We caught the 1145 and were pleasantly surprised at how quiet it was. A Saturday in Scunthorpe bus station isn't always the most enjoyable place to be, and with Hull being such a pull for youngsters in the area, I had prepared myself for a chav-fest aboard the bus. It was not to be. I suspect, though, that the xx15 departures past each hour would be busier on account of people not liking change and preferring to catch the journey most similar to that which operated before.

We wound our way along the A1077, diverting via Winterton and Wintringham until Barton on Humber. After passing through the town's market place, we called at the rail interchange. A Class 153 operates two-hourly from here to Cleethorpes via the Barton Line and Service 350's timings in both directions coincided with the arrival and departure times of the train. Now they do not. We understand, though, that a much greater connection time has been welcomed by the Friends of the Barton Line who believe that the old connection time (5 minutes) was too tight.

From here it was over the world's one-time longest single-span suspension bridge into the East Riding of Yorkshire (but not for long) before entering Hull.

This is the 'view' passengers have as they cross the second longest single-span suspension bridge in the world - the underside of the FastCat's contravision claw all over the window.

Stagecoach successfully bent the Humber Bridge Board's (HBB) arm into offering a discount to PCVs operating stage-carriage services across the Bridge. They did so only by threatening to completely withdraw the only direct service linking Grimsby and Hull though. There was much uncertainty for regular passengers on both sides of the Humber for many months until, eventually, a breakthrough was made in 2007. Very few operators object to paying a fee to cross the Humber Bridge, but most are angered at the difference in price a bus is made to pay over a car. Currently cars pay £2.70 and PCVs pay £10.60. We understand numerous operators wouldn't regularly object to the toll increase (forcing a public inquiry each time - at great cost to the HBB) if the fee a PCV paid was, at most, double that paid by a car. On other bridges throughout the UK, this is very often the case.

From Hull we sampled our first-ever trip aboard a Megabus vehicle from the city. A full write-up of this journey will appear in another media sometime soon.

Once in London, we visited the Montagu Pike Wetherspoons pub in Soho (two 2-course meals and drinks for under £20 in zone 1!) before taking a steady walk to Victoria train station where we would meet the third and final member of our trio. Once convened, we headed to the coach station for the 2300 Service 588 to Inverness.

Both m'colleague and I are big fans of Wetherspoons - here's one of the cheapest places to eat in central London, the Montagu Pike. This hostelry also acted as my local for a couple of years.

National Express officially measure this route to be 581.4 miles in length and it therefore makes it their second-longest coach service in the UK. With the equivalent journey by train equating to more than double the on-the-day fare NX offer (ironically it's NX who also calculate the train fare, too!), it fitted well within our remit. Bruce's Coaches operate the service now, taking over from Rapsons not long after Stagecoach purchased the group. Rapsons used 04-reg Volvo B12Ms with Jonckheere bodies; Bruces prefer VDL/Bovas, though on our journey a tri-axle Scania/Levante was working, with its rear-end adorned in a contravision blue cross, signifying the Scottish flag.

Bruce's Coaches' tri-axle Scania/Levante C53Ft - very comfortable thanks to the additional leg room. The coach is seen here at Keele Services, the first of two short stops en route to Inverness.

Normally, NX's tri-axle Levantes have 61 seats (the twin-axle versions have the standard 49 seats), though we were very impressed to see that Bruce's versions have only 53 seats yet measure 14.2m in length. Consequently, the leg room was very good indeed. We all commented well into the journey just how much difference a little more space makes a lengthy journey like this. We had two drivers who would between them take us to just beyond Glasgow, by which time it would be Sunday morning. Both work part-time for Bruces and one was ex. Stagecoach, implying he'd driven the service before, to which we understood to mean during Rapsons days. One even though he recognised yours truly. We had a brief discussion about whether this was fame or infamy. We never did get an answer!

At precisely 2300, FJ58 AKK departed. We had no one to board at Golders Green so headed off up the A41, by-passing Brent Cross, to the M1.

Day 2 - Sunday 21 June 2009

Day 2 dawned for us somewhere along the M1, as we headed north to the temporary coach stop near Milton Keynes, at which all National Express coach services are calling while their dedicated Coachway undergoes refurbishment. Timings aboard Service 588 seemed a little tight: we left VCS punctually and didn't stop once until Milton Keynes and yet were 5 minutes late! From here we progressed north, leaving the M1 for the M6 and had our first break of the journey at Keele Services just after 2am.

30 minutes later we departed, and followed the M6 through Greater Manchester and Lancashire to our first official stop since Milkton Keynes: Penrith. We were a minute or two late here but it didn't seem to phase our drivers. We didn't stop then until Glasgow, where we were timed to arrive at 0715 and depart fifteen minutes later. In actual fact, we both arrived and departed at 0730. Megabus give a straight 8 hours travelling time on its direct, overnight London-Glasgow services; NX offer 30 minutes more and yet call via Golders Green, Penrith and Lockerbie.

11.33am at Inverness bus station. Our driver unloads everyone's luggage in glorious sunshine.

As we were leaving Glasgow, one of our driving duo alighted with his overnight bag; we presumed he lived nearby and would walk the rest of the way home. Our second driver took us about 10 miles up the road towards Stirling before pulling off the motorway and onto a bridge to swap drivers with a chap who'd come from the Bruce's depot by red van. We continued northbound, passing through Stirling and Perth and onto the picturesque section of the A9 towards Inverness.

By now there were only 10 people on the coach and we all reflected on what an enjoyable journey it had been. There had been no problems with any of the passengers, the drivers had been great, their announcements pretty good, the coach comfort very impressive and the spaciousness resultant in the additional leg room was terrific. Fares appear to start at £22 single if booked online and while Megabus offers some of its seats for £1, they're incredibly difficult to find on its equivalent services - plus a change of coach at Edinburgh is required, the leg room is worse and you never know what type of vehicle is going to transport you over 500 miles.

The additional leg room that passengers aboard NX's Anglo-Scottish Scania/Levantes have. Very nice.

We all agreed that National Express definitely still have the edge on Anglo-Scottish coach journeys, especially those taking place overnight. Would they operate them the way they now do had Megabus not come along as a wake-up call? That's another question!

We arrived in Inverness 2 minutes early at 1133 and after some nice shots of our home for the past 12.5 hours, we headed to the city's Wetherspoons. From within, we devoured three very large all-day breakfasts and quaffed a fair amount of liquid. It was soon time to let it all settle while we travelled for a relatively short 3:15 journey to Wick, curtest of Stagecoach' Service X99.

I've travelled aboard this new-ish service on three occasions now and have noted alterations to its operation since last November. Initially, brand-new Volvo B7Rs were used, though due to there being no toilets on board (an end-to-end Thurso-Inverness journey is around 4 hours), they were replaced with ageing Scottish Citylink-liveried Volvo B10Ms. Today's 1415 departure was formed by a Scottish Citylink-liveried Volvo B12B/Plaxton Paragon. Equipped with climate control, 53102 (SV08 GXN) was a much welcome sight. Very similar to our 2005 Railrover, the temperature was starting to rise and, despite heading to the Far North, there's nothing worse than sitting in your own juices aboard a badly ventilated coach.

Off we go again: time for a 3:15 journey to Wick aboard this Stagecoach in Caithness (Thurso depot) vehicle - not that you'd know it from the livery of another operator it displays.

Our service was the only one on a Sunday that extends to Scrabster, where passengers can catch a ferry to the Orkneys and Shetland. I was pretty sure that the 35 passengers on board weren't all going to the very end, with a few alighting en route, and around 25 remaining as we approached Wick. The X99 has been re-numbered since the summer timetable was introduced last month. Initially numbered 25X, this service now only operates 'shorts' to Tain; the extensions northbound are all numbered X99, probably to distinguish the journeys better. On a Sunday, the X99/25X timetable is a seven-vehicle working, with Thurso providing 3 coaches and Tain depot 4. Ours was a Thurso working.

The route between Inverness and Wick is completely different by road to that by rail. The road (A9) stays close to the coast, whereas the railway meanders inland for much for the furthest section north. We arrived in Wick punctually and made our way to our overnight accommodation.

We'd booked rooms in a Wick b+b and one in Penzance. We were to have two overnighters, thus keeping the b+b bill down. Our Wick establishment was a 10 minute walk from the town centre, during which we passed the shortest street in the world, Ebenezer Place. Despite a road sign pointing us in this direction, and naming the No. 1 Bistro that occupies the only property along said street, it wasn't immediately noticeable to us. See what you think:

By sheer fluke, we'd booked to be in the second-most northerly town on the mainland on the longest day of the year. Tonight's official lighting-up time, according to a local Wick paper, was 2223. In actual fact, we staggered home from the country's most northerly Wetherspoons (I've made many a visit to The Alexander Bain in the past couple of years) at 2300hrs and it wasn't what you'd call especially dark then!

Tomorrow though, Day 3, would see this merry prelude end and the main journey commence: John o' Groats to Land's End in 31 hours and 5 minutes, being undertaking as quickly and as cheaply as possible by public transport.

Day 3 - Monday 22 June 2009

There's nothing worse than having to get up with the milkmen at silly o' clock in the morning to start an historic trip! Our first bus of the day was thankfully at a reasonable hour - 0845hrs, from Wick rail station, taking us to John o' Groats. In the past 4 years, I've made this specific journey on three occasions and each time the journey has thrown up something interesting. The first time, back when m'colleague and I undertook our 2005 LEYTR Railrover, the chap driving Rapsons' Service 77A mis-charged us the fare for their Rover ticket and we saved a couple of quid; the second time in Febraury, my friend and I travelled aboard a full-sized coach with National Express trim and a huge hole in the back where the toilet and servery used to be. On this occasion, our driver was from Kent and spent 27 years living in Scunthorpe - in the heart of the LEYTR area!

Our first vehicle of the day: Stagecoach in Caithness Service 77, seen here parked outside Wick rail station.

It was quite a revelation - so too was the Kent stuff, since one of we intrepid three lives there, too. Our vehicle was a full-sized coach again - a Dennis Javelin/Plaxton Profile, 27054 (SY51 EHX), still wearing the overall dark blue Rapsons livery and bearing both Rapsons and Stagecoach fleetnames. It featured 2+3 seating (C70F) and had just come off a school run. The driver of Service 77 (on this occasion we caught the slightly more direct journey, compared to the once-daily Service 77A) was based at Thurso and explained how recently, in a bit to improve the frequency of various services in Caithness, Stagecoach had allocated a large amount of what was traditionally operated Wick depot work to Thurso, which sees a lot of empty running in the mornings and evenings.

The only 'person' that paid on the journey was a tray containing 10 loaves of bread. This was put onto the bus at the Somerfield stop in Wick, with the baker paying the bread's fare with instruction to drop the haul off at the John o' Groats Post Office on his way back. Everyone else travelled free.

We arrived at John o' Groats bus terminal in light drizzle on time at 0940. En route, the driver's offside windscreen wiper stopped working, but with a small amount of manual adjustment, he set it right. 2+3 seating really is awful for any journey carrying people over 5-feet tall. Having wandered around the tourist areas located nearby, and having had our photo taken under the historic sign post on top of a concrete plinth, we went to board our next vehicle - the first of this historic trip.

"Surely you want 'LEYTR' on the sign?" said the guy taking the photo. That would be going just too far - "The working title of the jaunt will be sufficient," said we!

This was the 1025hrs Stagecoach in Caithness Service 80 to Thurso, operated on this occasion by 27588 (SN56 AXS), an integral ADL Enviro with B60F seating arrangement - yes, you guessed it, 3+2 seating. Obviously, if the alternative was for these services to cease operating if they couldn't be combined with school runs in the daytime peaks, having to contend with this rather cramped and particularly uncomfortable seating is a small price to pay for the ever-expanding network of local bus services in the area, which appears to have grown since Stagecoach came to town last year.

3+2 seating on this integral ADL Enviro300, seen here as we alight in central Thurso.

Our stopwatch was started the second we pulled away - 2 minutes late at 1027hrs. We were scheduled to arrive at Land's End the following day at 1722hrs, totalling 30:57, but with our 2 minute late departure, could this be shaved to a mere 30:55?

As with Service 77/77A, I've travelled on this route on three occasions now; this, the latest, offered the best views of Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of land on the mainland. The bus passes through the tiny village of Dunnet but the road to the historic outcrop is a further couple of miles by road.

You can't get any more northern than this - Dunnet Head, with a large dollop of cotton wool on top.

Our journey did look as though it would run into trouble after only 15 minutes, as the photo below shows.

Luckily, our Nottingham-born and bred driver (where are all the Scots drivers?) chose to do the only sensible thing with a trio of long-distance travellers on board, and that was to mount the ornamental grass verge to pass. Well done him! We were all impressed. We were a couple of minutes late arriving in Thurso, alighting on Sir George's Street at the time we should've arrived at the town's rail station, 1130. Not to worry though as our next journey wasn't until 1305hrs.

Having visited the most northerly Tesco for supplies and following the wander to the 99p shop in the town centre that sells microwaves (sadly, not for 99p!), we headed to the rail station in the drizzle. This stands at the top of Lovers Lane - at the foot of which is the town's bus depot. When I visited here last November, the Rapsons signs were still in evidence, now it's Stagecoach everywhere - except, weirdly, on the buses - some of which continue to only bare Rapsons fleetnames; others have both Stagecoach and Rapsons and others have just Stagecoach names (generally these are the ones in Stagecoach corporate swirls).

Stagecoach's bus depot in Thurso. Until last November, Rapsons names still were shown on the sides of the buildings; they can still be seen on almost all the buses.

I assured my companions that this particular train journey on the Far North Line would be very quiet indeed. We had seat reservations that accompanied our online advance ticket purchases, but I was confident they weren't really needed. How wrong I was!

For on the platform, as our Class 158 approached, were over 25 people. On board - and the train had only called at Wick - virtually all seats were taken, including those we had reserved. Shearings had booked a coach load of people onto the train from Wick to Golspie, for reasons unknown, and their driver had apparently told them to "sit in any reserved seat". What he should've said was "your seats are reserved and you can identify these over those that have been reserved for the other passengers as your surname has been written on your reservation slip".

158725 stands at Thurso station, just before the game of musical chairs inside.

The conversation I had with a gaggle of over-60s as I asked them to move from our seats was just surreal. Asking politely had no effect; the guard seemed completely lacking in the areas required to marshall the situation, and so diplomacy was ignored as I virtually ordered them to move. It worked (take note United Nations!). Having realised I was legitimately invading their airspace, the people sat in our reserved seats buggered off somewhere else. The completely ludicrous logic of these people in sitting where they did still baffles me to this day.

All that was needed was for the Shearings driver to have conveyed with much more accuracy what the situation was, and for the First ScotRail guard to ensure - prior to the train's departure from Wick - that the coach load were sat in their reserved seats that corresponded to their surnames, and none of this unpleasantness would've happened. As ever, it was down to the little people to sort out - successfully.

Rant over and we were now aboard 158725 and from what you've read above, our Plan B to sit in first class legitimately (there is no first-class fare on the Far North Line, thus occupying first class is perfectly okay) was scuppered as it was full of yet more Shearings people. However, it was a very nice, scenic trip (that got a lot better after Golspie!) and didn't seem to drag on as long as it has done in the past when m'colleague and I made two trips along the route during our 2005 LEYTR Railrover.

Neither of the two I was travelling with had been on the Far North Line before and the journey certainly represented a box ticked for them. On reflection though, I'd still prefer to travel between Wick/Thurso and Inverness by coach over train; the fare is cheaper and the journey time is quicker. Both offer equally dramatic scenery though completely different sorts. You see a lot more of the sea by road and more of the fascinating villages en route.

Inverness was our tightest connection of the entire jaunt: 5 minutes. We were due in at 1648 and out on a connecting Class 170 'Turbostar' at 1653, or so we thought. The dashing around wasn't really needed as the 1653hrs First ScotRail departure was actually timed at 1656. Yet again people were sat in our reserved seats, though a mild pleasantry got them to shift on this occasion. We departed on time with a heavy load aboard 170394 and made good progress along the Highland Main Line, south to Edinburgh. It's not far south of Inverness that a lengthy 1:60 climb is undertaken for quite some time to reach the highest point a railway on the National Rail network - just over 1,500 feet at Drumochter Pass.

Compared to the '158' we'd just been on, this '170' was much gutsier and handled the steep inclines very well. The comfort was excellent, though the air conditioning poor.

First ScotRail's trains travelling south of Inverness along this route do so to either Glasgow or Edinburgh. The journeys bifurcate at Perth and it was here, on our Edinburgh-bound train, that Glasgow passengers had to change. This saw the load reduced somewhat, as we headed off to the Fife coastline at Markinch, and south through Kirkcaldy and over the Forth Rail Bridge and finally onto Edinburgh. It's always a fascinating experience, crossing the Firth of Forth by rail. I remember asking my comrades how long it'd take to complete painting the bridge; none of them fell into the trap I was expecting them to as the both read this blog!

There wasn't complete carnage on the streets of central Edinburgh as we'd been told to brace ourselves for, what with the building of the city's tram network. It was decidedly calm along Princes Street. We'd arrived at 2029hrs as booked and the city centre was dying down, so perhaps that's why things seemed so calm. To my regret and - soon after - eternal shame, I found myself in the queue at a McDonalds, purchasing a perfectly-formed tiny burger in an equally tiny and perfectly-formed sesame seed bun. From the fast-food establishment (that's curiously started painting all its outlets a organic green colour - we weren't fooled!) it was only a couple of minutes to the city's bus and coach station.

It was from here that we were booked on the UK's longest coach service - National Express' Service 336, linking Edinburgh with Penzance daily. The service has been operated by First Devon & Cornwall for many years (possibly by Wessex before that) and it was a fortnight ago that I learned the company had been unsuccessful in the latest round of tenders, losing 5 contracts from its bases at Camborne and Penzance - the 336 is one such contract, passing to Bruces Coaches.

We didn't know any of this at the time and at 2115hrs boarded an all-white Volvo B12M/Plaxton Paragon C49Ft in readiness for our 2130hrs departure. The vehicle, despite its lack of livery, was a First-owned vehicle and had operated NX services since new. It carried contravision boards on both sides - in the slots were signs stating 'National Express', though I assume equally easy could they show 'First', should the vehicle be needed for their own work. Specifically, our steed for next 18.5 hours was 20532 (WV52 HVF).

M'colleague and I have travelled on the 336 before, from Edinburgh to Birmingham, so I knew that there was no point getting bedded down for the night as there'd be a 30 minute break at Glasgow from 2230-2300. Having loaded around 20 people there, we left punctually, bound for Penzance and into Day 4.....

Day 3 draws to a close here in Glasgow, where we take our last proper break until around 4pm the following day when we arrive in Penzance.

Day 4 - Tuesday 23 June 2009

Today is the most straightforward day of our historic jaunt, between John o' Groats and Land's End, for this was the day we sat on a coach until 4pm. It was a bog-standard coach, too: First Devon & Cornwall's 20532 (WV52 HVF), a Volvo B12M/Plaxton Paragon C49Ft. I had the foresight to have a look at the coach's odometer as we were stationary in Edinburgh, prior to us departing - it showed 442,358km - I'd imagine this is its second time round the clock. I would look again as we alighted in Penzance. Core-to-core, earth to the moon measures 384,403km, meaning on its second time round, this coach had been the equivalent distance of the moon and back almost twice

Despite its high mileage, she was in pretty good shape. The acceleration from a standstill was as good as any modern, i-shift-fitted Volvo, and the small steering wheel found in this vehicle type seemed to assist the drivers in the vehicle's overall manoeuvrability.

While the coach seemed in good mechanical condition, the leg room for such a lengthy journey was very poor indeed. Compare this shot with the one I took while aboard Bruces Coaches' tri-axle Scania/Levante.

We left the action in Part 3 somewhere not too far south of Glasgow when midnight struck. We called in at Hamilton and then Carlisle and then down towards Preston and Manchester. We had a particularly early first 'comfort stop', at Southwaite Services. We arrived at 0105 and were told to be back after 30 minutes. To our astonishment, our drivers, Eddie and Mark, just bailed out, leaving the engine running, all interior and exterior lights on and their personal possessions in full view. Wow. They must have been hungry.

Their announcements were very accurate and included some interesting phrases I've never heard made before over public address systems in coaches. My favourite was "We expect you as individuals to...." generally followed by ".... be back on board at the time we state". Back to the longest scheduled coach journey in the UK, and following our departure from Southwaite Services I remember falling asleep, with Preston being a very hazy blur. We omitted Salford University and despite a seemingly excellent run, were 10 minutes late by Manchester Central and even more at Manchester Airport! Quite a few alighted here, showing how useful the service is for those wanting to catch the first flights of the day from here.

We then we operated to Keele Services for our second 'comfort stop'. We all quipped that two nights earlier, we had our first 'comfort stop' of the jaunt on the tarmac on the other side of the M6 heading north aboard the tri-axle Scania/Levante bound for Inverness.

Keele Services at 0515hrs.

Again, both drivers just disappeared - they were always the first off the coach - and returned seconds before our departure. On each occasion they undertook a head count to ensure they weren't going to leave anyone behind, but I found it fascinating how the vehicle was only ever turned off in bus/coach stations, even if it was for a minute and yet kept running at motorway service areas for thirty minutes or so.

Birmingham Central was the half-way point and I think it's fair to say that we were all feeling rather chipper, despite it being 0645. Dawn was breaking and the daylight is a natural tonic to the overnight traveller. Another 'comfort stop' at Strensham Services was on the cards en route to Bristol, where yet again Eddie and Mark were the first off and last back on. By now traffic was building and the service stations were becoming progressively busier.

Strensham Services at 0810hrs.

You could be forgiven for thinking that by Bristol, you're almost there. I mean, they all speak like they're from Cornwall round there, don't they? You'd be wrong. We arrived in Bristol at 0910 and yet it would be another 6:50 before we reached Penzance. If you're not averse with the West Country, it takes ages to travel anywhere on account of the lack of motorways there. Our coach also operated through all the towns, cities and other tourist areas, additionally increasing the journey time.

When m'colleague undertook the 336 service a few years ago, he said that by Bristol he seriously contemplated leaving the service early, such was his boredom. We were a little fed up though the scenery was changing and I think we were all looking forward to completing the main element of the jaunt later on this afternoon.

Plymouth at 1230hrs.

From Bristol we travelled through Taunton to Exeter, where we had another short break, then onto Plymouth and then Truro though a whole host of smaller localities en route. We hardly deviated off the main roads though. Truro seemed like the nicest place along this section of route. As we were backing-off the stand in said town, a First driver heading northbound told our crew that there'd been a bad accident at Redruth and to go a different way. This we did but the traffic was awful. It got worse in Camborne, by which time we were over 20 minutes late.

Truro at 1430hrs.

Our drivers left us here and were relieved by a solitary chap who took us forward to Penzance via St. Ives. The bus station in St. Ives will certainly test Bruces Coaches' drivers if they're to use tri-axle Scanias on the 336 when they take over operation of the service soon! I'd never been to St. Ives before and did a mini 'double-take' at the three-point turn required on a cliff edge to negotiate the bus station. So many questions: "How safe *really* is this manoeuvre?" "What happens if a car is parked here, the owner nowhere to be seen?" "What if another bus is making use of the bus station?" Whether it was divine intervention or not, we had an empty bus station and a clear approach so we had no accessibility issues. We were still at least 20 minutes late though.

It was clear by now that this would have an effect on our journey time. We had planned an end-to-end time of 30:57, but thanks the our driver from John o' Groats to Thurso leaving 2 minutes late, could shave this to 30:55. Unfortunately this would not be attainable now as we had planned to catch the 1630 First Devon & Cornwall Service 1 to Land's End. We planned for the worst and assumed we'd not arrive for that time.

As it turns out we arrived at 1632, having completed 19 hours and 2 minutes aboard Service 336. We'd done it though. Tomorrow would see us undertake a trip aboard the UK's lengthiest bus service in terms of end-to-end journey time. We were getting quite a taste for this sort of thing! The odometer of the coach now read 443,454km, meaning we'd travelled *precisely* 1,036km or 681.02 miles. Beat that! Though taking 19 hours and 2 minutes, our average speed was a very disappointing 35.8mph. Still it's more civilised than walking the distance as some people do!

Precisely 681.02 miles after we left Edinburgh we arrive at Penzance - 32 minutes late.

With our arrival being at the time it was, the 1630 bus to Land's End had gone. We chose to visit the b+b we'd booked to dump our things and make for the next departure at 1740, Service 1A. This duly arrived in the form of First Devon & Cornwall's 34753 (A753 VAF), a Leyland Olympian/ECW, new to Western National in 1983. What a beast! Quite different to the coach we'd called home since last night! It was dirty, looked and sounded rough and gave an outrageous ride, but what a ride!

"It was held together by the rust mites holding hands", but what a ride - First's Service 1A to Land's End is thoroughly recommended!!

The scenery as you climb out of Penzance is excellent. The narrow roads, the overhanging trees, the hairpins and the awkwardness as you meet a similar vehicle coming the other way can only be very stressful for the drivers of this route, but superb for the traveller. I've never been to Land's End before - and Penzance only once during our 2005 LEYTR Railrover - so this was quite a surprise. It was a route sure to wake up any sleepy traveller.

A good example of what we encountered aboard Service 1A - this 1:7 gradient with a blind, single-track bend. Unfortunately, travelling into the sun prevented me from taking photos of the hair-pin bend, even narrower roads and a tricky situation when we met another bus heading in the opposite direction.

We arrived at Land's End precisely at 1832 hours, when the stopwatch was stopped. We'd done John o' Groats to Land's End in exactly 32:05, precisely 1:08 longer than we'd planned. It was an excellent journey though, we all thoroughly enjoyed it. We arrived a little too late to have a similar photo taken to that we'd posed for at John o' Groats just over 32 hours ago.

That was something else we were all suffering with: we'd mention something we'd done during the jaunt but we'd spend ages contemplating whether this thing had occurred either today, yesterday, Sunday or Saturday. You lose all concept of time undertaking this type of trip.

Our last journey of the day was aboard First Devon & Cornwall's Service 300, an open-top service, returning via an almost-identical route to that we'd travelled on from Penzance. Our chariot was 38000 (D700 GHY), a Volvo B10M Citybus/Alexander RV, new to Badgerline in 1987. It handled the hills and the hairpin better than our outward Leyland Olympian!

Ex Badgerline Volvo Citybus now an open-topper. We played an interesting game of 'chicken' with the foliage while sat on the top deck. The branches always won :-(

And that was it. The summer's evening and view across the bay couldn't have been better as we tucked into fish 'n' chips and then a drink or two in Wetherspoon's most southerly freehouse, The Tremenheere.

The Tremenheere is to Land's End what The Alexander Bain is to John o' Groats. Cheers!!

This wasn't the end though - we had to get back home, and that took place on Day 5.....

Day 5 - Wednesday 24 June 2009

We left the action at the end of Day 4, successfully arriving at Land's End, having completed the main segment of the trip in 32:05 precisely. It was now time for home, but we opted to travel to London taking in England's longest bus service. We'd bagged its coach equivalent yesterday, and so it felt only right to dream up an itinerary that encompassed First's Jurassic Coast Service X53, that links Exeter with Poole in 4:40, or 280 minutes. It's the lengthiest bus route in terms of its end-to-end journey time, though it is pipped to the post when compared with Stagecoach's Service X5 for mileage covered.

We had an enjoyable breakfast at the b+b in Penzance town centre, where we resided overnight, and jumped aboard the 0717 First Great Western train service bound for London Paddington, though we were to alight at Exeter. The last time I'd departed from Penzance by train was during the 2005 LEYTR Railrover and today I got one of my travelling companions to replicate a photo of me in the same spot as that which m'colleague had done in 2005, and comparing the two now, I'm pleased to report I've lost weight (and a little hair!).

FGW's 43094 leads our Penzance-London formation, seen here as we alighted at Exeter St. David.

I think First's train livery really suits its Class 43 High-Speed Trains (HSTs), in fact, the livery suits all EMU, DMUs and locos I've seen wearing it. It's not too in-your-face as the Stagecoach variant for its HSTs is, and the bright pink pulse lines contrast well with the deep blue. The journey from Penzance to Exeter is no walk-in-the-park. It's not just down the road, as the uninitiated Cornish and Devonian traveller would assume. The journey time was 3:16, with our arrival in Exeter St. David being at 1054hrs.

The journey is also particularly spectacular, with very impressive views from the edge of the Cornish coastline and the very picturesque Dawlish Sea Wall within Devon. There aren't many main rail lines permitting frequent HST-hauled trains that see the route used hug to the coastline as much as this one. Then, no sooner have you left the seemingly innocuous station of Saltash, it's time to grab your camera and lean out of one of the windows for one of the most impressive shots that can be taken on our national rail network - crossing the Royal Albert Bridge into Plymouth.

The Royal Albert Bridge - now 150 years old. Our HST curves to enter the bridge heading east from Saltash towards Plymouth.

The month previous, the bridge had celebrated its 150th anniversary. Built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1859, the bridge is regarded as one of the most spectacular in the world. Its unique design makes it immediately recognisable and it is undoubtedly the gateway to Cornwall. It has its own webcam (click here), too. We were lucky to be ensconced in the Quiet Coach at the very rear of the train and so were able to capture the rake of Mk3s curving towards the portal. It's one of my favourite shots and I even managed a little bit of video recording thanks to my digital camera.

Today was the start of the mini heat-wave that ended June and kicked-off July and it was getting very warm indeed. The air conditioning aboard the HST was very good. 43094 was at the front of our eight-car formation, with 43012 at the rear. As they glided our train out of Exeter St. David, I must say I was a little disappointed at how un-intercity-like the new MTU41 engines fitted to virtually all HSTs make them sound. Time was - not too long ago - when standing on the platform as an HST departed actually made you deaf for a spilt second as rear locomotive screamed out the station. That was when their motive power was supplied by their original Valenta engines; all but those operated by Grand Central and Network Rail's test trains have the new MTUs installed, which are lacklustre by comparison.

The walk up hill to Exeter city centre was no joke. It was becoming very hot indeed and we were all heavily laden with our ruck sacks. Once we'd reached the Snowdon-like summit, we went straight to a 'greasy spoon' cafe for sustenance. I found a particularly good vantage point for photographs outside and was impressed at the turnout of the Stagecoach vehicles here.

With 20 minutes or so to go before our next epic journey was due to commence, we wandered to the bus station where we were greeted with a queue at our stand of about 80 people. "We could have problems here" I remembered thinking to myself. Upon further inspection, there were a lot of young people with luggage in the queue and I didn't expect the X53 to attract that kind of clientele. I'd expected a fairly long queue of people with blue rinses and no intention of paying.

I was right, after the 15-meter-long Trathens Volvo B12T and its traditional 12-meter duplicate had taken all those dwelling at our bus stop to London, with the exception of we three fare payers, the rest were of retirement age. The fare aboard the X53 was excellent value - £6, which also doubled-up as a rover ticket for all First services in the area. Our vehicle was 37585 (HX08 DHY), one of the nearly-new Volvo B9TL/Wright Eclipse Geminis.

Here is one of seven similar 58-reg Volvo B9TLs with Wright Eclipse Gemini bodies that work England's longest bus route.

We departed Exeter virtually on time and made our way along the trunk routes - passing though the wonderfully named village of Beer - before heading off the beaten track down narrow roads with steep gradients (it started to remind me of the Penzance-Land's End route) to Seaton. We clung to the coast more now, travelling through Lyme Regis, Bridport and eventually we spotted Portland Bill on the horizon. It wasn't too much longer after this that we dropped down into Weymouth. A couple of years ago, m'colleague and I visited this town to attend a bus rally therein. We made numerous journeys in the area aboard some of the historic buses and coaches that were providing free rides - my favourite was aboard a Mk1 Leyland National to Portland Bill itself. I'd grown up travelling on these vehicles and I was one of the only ones volunteering to travel on this over more historic half-cabs on the same run.

It was an excellent - if hectic - day. Today saw an equally hectic seafront at Weymouth; there were buses galore, mixed in with all the traffic. Fairly generous timings are given to the X53 at its easterly end, and I could now see why. We had our solitary driver changeover in Weymouth, just before reaching the sea front, and then it was off to Poole via Wareham. Traffic into Poole was particularly bad and we lost a good 15 minutes, not arriving until 1740 - almost 5 hours since we'd boarded.

One of our party, who had an early start back at work the following day, bailed out at Poole rail station and caught a much faster (and expensive) train to central London. Those of us remaining 'til the death, spent just over an hour in Poole before catching the last London-bound National Express coach departure of the day at 1900.

Service 035 is operated by Transdev Yellow Buses (Bournemouth Transport) on behalf of NX and they have a couple of different vehicle types. We travelled on 323 (FJ07 DWA), a Volvo B12B/Caetano Levante with seemingly inoperable climate control. Boy did it get uncomfortable travelling the extended route to London via Portsmouth! We had a full load by the latter and even sleeping was becoming an arduous task, what with the beads of sweat being produced by my and my fellow passengers' bodies.

It got very warm aboard this coach until the driver finally managed to get the climate control working less than an hour before the end of our 3:20 journey.

Then suddenly our mute driver (no announcement of any sort) seemed to jump into life and had a fiddle and the climate control started to work. Why hadn't he done this while waiting his departure time at Poole? He was not partitioned from the rest of the saloon, so was sat in his own juices like the rest of us! It was a very poor journey if I'm honest - an opinion shared by the remaining 'Top 'n' Tailer' sat next to me.

We were both glad to be off the coach once we'd entered London Victoria Coach Station Arrivals, a few minutes before our scheduled arrival time of 2220.

Was it really from this coach station that 4 days earlier - almost to-the-hour, we'd left bound for Inverness? It seemed like a lifetime ago, while at the same time only yesterday!

We caught a Tube to King's Cross - a very desolate Tube! - and boarded with plenty of time the last National Express East Coast departure of the day, the 2330 to Leeds, dropping off only at all its stops en route - the first of which being Peterborough at 0023. The train was formed of 43296 (leading) with 43313 at the rear.

This was to be our last journey that forms part of the LEYTR Top 'n' Tail. What a trip!!

Now technically in Day 6, we'd arranged a lift from Peterborough station back to Lincoln, from where the jaunt had started. It wasn't until much later on the sixth day that I finally made my own way home.

We've not mentioned in depth is the costs incurred. We said from the start that this jaunt would befit the current economic climate and we believe we conformed superbly. We spent two overnight stays in b+bs (Wick & Edinburgh), totalling £52.50 and each incurred only £32.65 in bus, coach and rail fares. This latter figure was so low because the National Express coach journeys were free of charge for us since we ran our idea by the now stricken company, who were more than happy to permit us travel for free as they rather enjoy our blog!

Many thanks to National Express for permitting us to utilise their network of coach services in order to make this five-day adventure total under £90 - including accommodation. (GL)