September 06, 2006

Some Training Required

I think it’s a testament to Bill Bryson’s writing that I frequently go through life feeling like I’m in a Bill Bryson book.

I had originally booked my ticket back from London for Thursday afternoon, supposing that I would need that much time to find a flat. But after happening upon somewhere on Tuesday, I thought I might as well go back to Edinburgh a day early rather than aimlessly bum around in London (plenty of time for that come October, I say).

So I phoned the customer service number on my receipt and asked if it would be possible to change the ticket. I was informed that, in fact, my ticket was such that I could travel on any day this month, as long as I didn’t choose a service that left between the peak hours of 3:15pm and 6:15pm.

I should explain, at this point, that the British rail system is one of the most oblique and bewildering ways of organising a national transit network that you are ever likely to come across. Just before leaving for London, my stepmother had clipped me an article from the Guardian about how to get cheaper train fares on long journeys; it seems that, because of the way certain trips are classified as peak or not-peak — central or peripheral, literal or figurative, pink or blue — one can often save a great deal of money by manipulating the fare structure on the route on which you’re travelling.

For instance, rather than buying a ticket from Edinburgh to London, you could buy a series of tickets from Edinburgh to York, York to Peterburgh, and then Peterburgh to London. You will be on exactly the same train, for exactly the same amount of time that you would be if you bought the single Edinburgh-London ticket, but you’ll pay less, and it’s perfectly legit. Even more ludicrous, if you buy a ticket from London to Glasgow and then get off a few hours early at Carlisle, you’ll pay less than if you had bought a ticket from London to Carlisle on the same train (except that is totally illegal, obviously).

Suffice it to say, I thought I had better double-check before blithely turning up at the train station today, so I went to Kings Cross a few hours early and talked to a nice old lady in the ticket office.

“Oh, yes, that’s fine, you can use this today, as long as it’s not during peak hours,” she said.

“And peak hours are 3:15pm to 6:15pm?”

“Yes... Er, no, for this ticket, the latest you can use it today is 2:30pm.”


“That’s only for GNER services, though. If you get on a Virgin train it doesn’t matter what time you travel.”

“I see.”

“But Virgin only departs from Euston station, so you’ll have to go there.”

So I went to Euston Station.

“Oh, no, you don’t want to be doing that,” said the man there. “Get on a Virgin train and you’ll have to go to Glasgow first. Your best bet is to get a GNER train direct from Kings Cross. But you can’t travel during peak hours.”

“And what are those?” I asked, with some trepidation.

“Ooooh, good question, let me check,” he said, before pulling a phonebook-sized tome from under his desk. After flipping through it for a few seconds, consulting with one of his colleagues (who in turn got out his own phonebook), and tapping a few keys on his computer, he proudly announced: “2:59pm until 6:59pm.”

“2:59pm until 6:59pm?”

“Yes. Er, no. What did I say? Yeah, 2:59pm.”

I decided that it was probably best to get one last confirmation on this, so I went back to Kings Cross and tried a slightly different tack with a new man, there. “What time is the latest train I could take to Edinburgh today?”

“Well,” he said, with the sort of tone that suggested the answer was something he could savour, like a fine brandy, for several hours. “Peak hours start at 2:30pm, so the last train to Edinburgh you can get on is the 2pm.”

“Okay, thank you,” I said.

“But,” he continued, as if I hadn’t said a word, “You could also get on the 2:30pm to Newcastle, and switch at York to the Virgin cross country service. That’ll get you into Edinburgh around the same time.”


“Hang on a second, though, today is the second Wednesday of the month — that means peak hours are only applicable on routes through Fotheringham-Upon-Potts. So if you take the 2:45pm to Leeds and then change to a ScotRail service to Aberdeen, a rift in the space-time continuum will appear, and you’ll get in to Edinburgh sometime last Friday. Of course, that’s if they’re not doing signal work at High Bottomsbury. Then it would get a bit complicated.”

The upshot was that I got on the 2:30pm to Newcastle, with strict instructions to change at York to the Virgin cross country service. Only, when I got to York, the Virgin cross country service appeared not to exist — instead, the staff member on the platform told me, in an exasperated sort of way, to get on the GNER service to Glasgow, which stops in Edinburgh on the way. He then added, as if to highlight my stupidity:

“But really you should have just taken the direct service from Kings Cross to Edinburgh at 3pm.”


I believe the ultimate goal of all this is to make train journeys so confusing and unpleasant that nobody will ever want to travel by train — and then the government can just quietly close up the rail networks altogheter.

Sorry, that was a bit of a long one, wasn’t it? See what I mean about blog incontinence?

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