Saturday, 5 March 2022

Book review: Chiltern Railways The Inside Story

Recently published by Pen & Sword, Adrian Shooter's book is an insight into how his character and drive, aligned to several sets of favourable circumstances, created and sustained one of Britain's success stories of the rail franchise era. As readers of this blog from its early days will know, I am a fan both of Adrian Shooter and of his franchised service. Indeed, after he had stepped down from Chiltern in 2011, I described him as 'Passionate, opinionated, involved' and to some extent this could describe his book. Adrian's passion for the rail industry and for Chiltern Railways in particular is clear; he is forthright in his opinions of civil servants, other TOC managers, and politicians (not to mention the Strategic Rail Authority); and his involvement with staff, trains, and infrastructure is evident on every page. But... there are telling omissions in the story that Adrian tells. Many staff are (rightly) singled out for praise for their contributions to the project that was Chiltern Railways but not every department of the company gets a mention. He is proud of the Class 168s as a huge contributor to the inital success of Chiltern (and which still carry the burden of the Birmingham to London services) but there is little on the Class 67 / Silver Set introductions (and nothing on the abortive attempt to introduce 90 minute running between Moor Street and Marylebone). Evergreen 1 and 2 and the Oxford link are covered as successful infrastructure projects yet the collapse of the Gerrard's Cross tunnel which almost brought the company to its knees is covered but briefly (Hugh Jones opens his 2010 book on Chiltern Railways with a very vivid description of the impact that the tunnel collapse had on the company's psyche). Perhaps the strangest omission is the lack of any insights into the rivalry with Virgin Trains though the famous billboards outside Moor Street station are illustrated. Richard Branson doesn't get a mention and Virgin Trains are virtually ignored. This is all very strange as one of the decisions for which Adrian was (presumably) responsible for making was to go after the Birmingham-London market and to increase Chiltern's share (especially by removing the need to drive to and park at Birmingham International). The flip side of this strategic decision - the increasing howls of frustration from the commuters at the London of the line at their treatment by Chiltern - is also not addressed. So alongside his 2018 autobiography (also published by Pen & Sword), this book gives a clear description of what has made Adrian Shooter such a success in his chosen field and is invaluable in filling in some of the Chiltern story not covered by Hugh Jones. So highly recommended but one that leaves me feeling that there is more to the 'inside' story... Book list: Shooter, Adrian Chiltern Railways The Inside Story Pen & Sword 2022 £30 1526792494 Shooter, Adrian Adrian Shooter: A Life in Engineering and Railways Pen & Sword 2018 1473893194 Harper, Richard and Rushton, Gordon Wrexham & Shropshire: Open Access - The One That Got Away Adlestrop Press 2014 0957145616 Jones, Hugh The Chiltern Railways Story The History Press Ltd 2010 0752454544

Thursday, 2 December 2021

Chiltern - still the alternative to Avanti West Coast?

Part of the impetus for starting the blog back in 2010 was my frustration that friends and colleagues weren't aware that there were alternatives to Virgin's Pendolinos (and Virgin fares) for the journey to London. Thus my blog did tend to highlight the many good things about the Chiltern service from Birmingham Snow Hill and Moor Street to London Marylebone - a tendency which grew with the introduction of the Silver Sets and the demise of the Wrexham and Shropshire service. Yesterday, Chiltern published the timetable for services from Sunday 12th December, though in a very basic format (only the 'print' version has the notes...). Strangely, no Silver Set services are indicated. Is the pattern from the current timetable to be continued (11.10 and 17.14 from Marylebone; 07.53 and 13.55 from Moor Street)? Covid is still having an effect on the service pattern as Snow Hill's xx.12 departures are not consistently hourly across the day. Thus Moor Street continues to be the key departure station for Birmingham with an hourly pattern of xx.55 and xx.15 departures for much of the day Monday-Friday (see below for full list). Journey times tend to be around 110 minutes for the xx.55 departures and 115 minutes for the xx.15 departures. Of course, with Chiltern one is sacrificing speed for lower fares. Chiltern's own peak return fare is £123.10 - and only required from Birmingham - as compared to the Any Permitted peak return fare of £188.80 - either direction Monday-Thursday - whilst the off-peak return fare of £52.80 is without evening time restrictions from London as compared to the Any Permitted £59.80 with its Monday-Thursday evening time restrictions. Don't forget that you can return via Chiltern in the M-Thu evening peak on an Any Permitted off-peak ticket by asking for a Change of Route Excess (to 'via High Wycombe') though when I asked to do this recently I was told not to bother and simply waved onto the train at Marylebone... Super off-peak returns are £33.10 though with time restrictions As ever with fares, don't pay for what you don't need when using a 'peak' ticket (ie a peak single out from Birmingham at £77 could be mixed with a super off-peak single for the return journey), check for railcard and group travel discounts, and look for split ticket options too. All to be covered in future blogs... Finally, Chiltern don't provide on-board refreshments nor is there 'First Class' available. If the Silver Sets are running then the Business Zone carriage is a (small) step up from the standard class carriages but whether the supplement of £15 off-peak or £30 peak is worth the enhanced ambience is a moot point (Seatfrog bidding isn't available for Chiltern). Departures from Birmingham Moor Street (Monday-Friday from 13th December 2021): 0515, 0542, 0610, 0633, 0711, 0753, 0825*, 0855, 0915, 0955**, 1015, 1055, 1115, 1155, 1255, 1315, 1355, 1415, 1455, 1515, 1615, 1654, 1710, 1755, 1835, 1917, 2018, 2118 Departures from London Marylebone (Monday-Friday from 13th December 2021): 0605*, 0711, 0744, 0811, 0910**, 1010, 1037, 1110, 1137, 1210, 1234, 1337, 1410, 1437, 1510, 1537, 1618, 1647, 1714, 1747, 1815, 1847, 1915, 1947, 2010, 2037, 2110, 2210, 2233, 2307 * First off-peak train from Birmingham; All trains are off-peak from Marylebone for outward journeys. NOTE that there are no peak restrictions to / from London Euston on Fridays ** First super-off train - restrictions from Birmingham and restrictions from Marylebone

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Taking the long way round - one of the pleasures of retirement...

Four months into retirement and several journeys to London under my belt on the Covid-lite railway, what better way to restart my blog than a journey over the route from Birmingham New Street to London Paddington via Reading... Readers of the Blog since its inception in February 2010 will know that I have always had a soft spot for this CrossCountry / First Great Western route. The current Covid-lite CrossCountry timetable has only an hourly service from New Street to Reading departing at xx.04 starting at 06.04 and runing through to 22.04. Monday to Friday ticket restrictions remain in place on fares to London meaning that the first 'Off-Peak' service is the 10.04 (and you can't return from Paddington between 16.00 and 18.30). Voyagers continue to be the rolling stock - one gain from the Covid-lite timetable is that many services are now two sets running together which would ease overcrowding on this route if passenger levels were normal (they're not). Walk-on Off-Peak return fare is now £59.80 standard class and £174.40 First Class - these are Any Permitted (set by Avanti West Coast) and allow journeys by any 'reasonable' route between Birmingham and London and are of course valid for a month. Naturally, there are ways to reduce the cost which I will cover in later blogs; for now, I want to highlight one of the recent innovations which make life more pleasant: Seatfrog. Seatfrog is an App for Android and iOS phones which allows you to 'bid' for a First Class upgrade prior to travel. Between Birmingham and London, Avanti West Coast services and those on the CrossCountry / First Great Western route are available. CrossCountry in particular have embraced the concept to provide very reasonably priced upgrades whilst First Great Western and Avanti West Coast have not been so generous (though no doubt will argue that their upgrade prices reflect the superior First Class offering on their services). So for my journey south on the 10.04 CrossCountry to Reading and the 20.15 return I was successful in bidding £5 each way. First Great Western would have allowed me to bid £10 for the onward connection to Paddington on the 11.48 and again for the 19.32 return but for a 24 min journey I have my doubts on how worthwhile this is. Also, should you miss the connection, the upgrade isn't transferable and the refund is from the Train Operator not through the App (see the FAQs). Travelling First Class on a Voyager is a 'no-brainer' for £5... Coach 'A' tends to be quiet; the seats are more spacious and compfortable (and aligned with the windows); the First Class hosts are attentive; and the complimentary snacks enjoyable. On both services, the promised Bacon Rolls out and Sandwiches back were available (see the menu). Note that refreshments are not available on the 21.04 and 22.04 from Birmingham and on the 21.15 from Reading. Overall journey times are 128 mins out and up to 134 mins back (including the connection time at Reading).... Why not go along for the ride?

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Avanti West Coast

So Virgin West Coast is no more, replaced by Avanti West Coast from Sunday 8th December 2019. If Twitter is to be believed, the handover wasn't smooth... initial complaints included non-working WiFi, lack of staff, inability to pick seats on the company's booking site, delayed trains, high fares etc etc. A month on, matters seem to have settled down so what is the reality of travel with the new franchise owner between Birmingham and London? Today I was able to travel from New Street to Euston on a train before 8am, returning on one after 3pm. Both journeys ran largely to time, were uncrowded, had friendly staff, and were amazing value for money. Both journeys were on 11 car Pendolinos and were of course staffed by ex-Virgin crews 'TUPE'd' across. Still largely a 'Virgin' ambience (though thankfully without the talking toilet) emphasised by the female / male alternating recorded announcements. One surprise was the £20 upgrade fee for Weekend First each way (I can remember when it was £10) though I am told that it is 'only' £15 from Rugby (for full information see Of course, you could always try your luck on Seatfrog for an upgrade prior to travel, or indeed book and advance first class fare... Talking of fares, my journey was booked 5 weeks in advance. Using a Senior Railcard, the outward Advance Single cost £7.60 and the return Advance Single £6.95 (making a grand total of £14.55). A walk-on off-peak return ticket would have cost me £38.50. Looking ahead 5 weeks, the equivalent journeys currently cost £6.25 out and £5.60 back (total of £11.85) with First Class equivalents at £15.50 each way (so definitely cheaper than upgrading on the train!). Interestingly Avanti West Coast are offering a Super Off-Peak Day Travelcard for £38 but the booking site warns of limited availability... Overall a good introduction to the new company's services. Looking forward to getting to grips with the full offer over the next few months.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Snap coach travel between Birmingham and London

When I first started to blog on travel between Birmingham and London I intended to cover all means of 'public' transport. For various reasons, I ended up concentrating on rail travel options and then had to suspend my blog (and site) as I took up a post with one of the TOCs that I covered.

However, IChooseBirmingham has teamed up with Snap to offer a return trip to London (and other destinations) for free so the other day I gave it a go...

Booking is simple: you choose Birmingham and London, the number of seats, and time that you want to travel and the system comes back with what is on offer. The default pick-up point I was offered was Selly Oak and the default drop-off point was Covent Garden, both of which appeared to fit in with my travel plans so I went ahead with a booking on the 10.26 service. In fact there is a series of stops in both Birmingham and London so it is worth checking the list to ensure your journey plan is optimal (see below).

Naturally you have to verify your mobile phone as you book as this is the preferred method of contact. Having booked you get a confirmation text...

On the day, I arrived at the Selly Oak stop in good time, grateful that the day was fine as there is no shelter... Fortunately there is a Starbucks with a toilet opposite the stop, so, as you can track the coach from your phone, you can wait in there (make sure you leave in time to cross the light controlled crossing). Snap texted to tell me that Simon from Prospect Coaches was on his way...

Due to the horrendous traffic issues around Selly Oak, the coach - a Plaxton Panther with a 17 plate - arrived 15 mins late. Snap uses Google maps to estimate journey times when you book and gave an expected arrival time into Covent Garden (actually Kingsway) of 1244. Clearly not going to happen...

Boarding is simplicity itself - Simon asks for your name and checks it off and that's it. Very quiet on the coach so no problem choosing a seat. Bottle of water handed out and off we went. The coach had WiFi, a USB charger, and a clean toilet. Smooth Radio accompanied the journey south but wasn't particularly distracting. The seats recline but are perhaps rather close together. There isn't a dividing arm rest between the window and aisle seat, but there are seat belts. A drop down tray with cup holder is provided.

The route is the M40 / A40 into West London which means a good run on the motorway - excellent driving by Simon - but an increasingly slow approach to Central London. By Paddington we were down to a crawl..The first stop was Baker Street at the expected arrival time for Covent Garden (1244). In hindsight, that is the point to get off as it took a further 40 minutes to reach Covent Garden...

Shortly after arrival, a text from Snap asked me to rate the trip from 5 (great) to 1 (awful) stating that the ratings help to choose future operators. Naturally I gave Simon a 5 as there was nothing he could have done to improve the timings and his coach and driving were fine...

Snap are currently offering one-way trips for £5 though the range of times seems to be limited. If you are flexible in your timings (and don't mind coach travel) it is probably worth giving it a go. Not sure that those with accessibility issues will be too impressed - there appears to be nothing on the site FAQs about wheelchair provision or help for passengers who need additional assistance. Clearly the toilet is NOT easily accessible (down the flight of stairs leading to the emergency exit...) and my coach had steps to get aboard.

Overall, a service which is still a work in progress?

Snap have provided the following information about accessibility on the coaches they use:

We can look for Operators with Wheelchair access on the day you wish to travel.

There is a box before the check out asking if you or someone travelling with you need to access the coach with a wheelchair.

If that's the case will do our best to accommodate your request.

If you or the person travelling with you can board the coach without the need of a wheelchair but still need one to go around, in that case you can book without clicking the box and we'll store the wheelchair in the luggage area downstairs.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Virgin Trains withdrawal of peak time railcard easements from 6th September

One of the quirks of the Birmingham to London routes has been Virgin West Coast's easement for 16-25 & Senior railcard holders allowing the use of off-peak tickets on peak hour trains. From Sunday 6th September, this easement will be withdrawn -see this FAQ

Clearly this is bad news for those railcard holders who have been benefiting from Virgin's easement: an off-peak return fare of £34.15 will become an Anytime Return at £110.90 although Virgin do say that more Advance purchase tickets will be made available...

So what should an affected Railcard holder do? Clearly the first thing to check is that the journey needs to be at peak times for both legs. The Split Ticketing site is an essential place to start exploring the different options available - for instance, returning to Birmingham on the 16.43 from Euston is effectively off-peak by splitting the fare at Milton Keynes and Coventry.

Secondly, consider using London Midland services to / from Euston or Chiltern Railways services to / from Marylebone. Although slower, both companies' fares are much cheaper than Virgin's as their time restrictions are much less onerous.

Finally, buy your off-peak tickets now as return journeys after the 6th September will be honoured (so Virgin tell me).

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Wrexham & Shropshire - a trip down memory lane

Having written in praise of 'Wrexham & Shropshire: open access - the one that got away' last night to mark the four years since closure, I thought I would take a trip into my blog archive to see what memories my early posts would evoke...

My web site (now in abeyance) and this blog were inspired by the efforts that the W&S were making to break into the Birmingham to London market through the stop at Tame Bridge Parkway. In February 2010, I spent a week travelling First Class between the two cities on a variety of routes and services...

My first experience of the wonderful staff service on a W&S train was on my first day when travelling between Banbury & Leamington Spa. There was confusion on whether I was entitled to a meal but no hassle on being given something to eat (soup in this case). On the second day, I partook of the famed W&S breakfast  and also wrote a rather snarky comment on the W&S claim to have four-star toilets...

In March, I traveled standard class for a week so of course marveled at the difference in comfort for the W&S as opposed to the other TOC offeirngs... see and

In August, I sampled one of the 'Diverting with Doris' trains so warmly described in the book (p104-105) see Happy days but surely financially ruinous...

In December I celebrated the use of W&S stock and staff for a new Chiltern service (see not realising what it was going to lead to!

A year on from the start of my blog came the end... It really was a good year but as the book makes clear one that was not sustainable. Thanks anyway to those who made it happen.