Dear reader, the time is now upon us for the first annual Peculiar awards, which are (or at least are intended to be) a bit of a tongue-in-cheek look back at various things I’ve done over the year, which you may or may not find amusing. Bear in mind that this is all entirely my opinion based on journeys I’ve made and things I’ve done, and is far from comprehensive. Without further ado…
The first awards are for the worst in various categories, or at least for things of which I disapprove. We shall start with the easiest one, which is:
Worst Bus Company: Centrebus
Ideally I would have liked to nominate several companies for each award, but really there was no competition for this one. That winning combination of clapped-out vehicles, rude staff and comically infrequent timetables never ceases to amaze (though not in a good way). It is true that they are not an enormous company, but that really ought not to be an excuse.
Small wonder that everyone I know who used to travel Centrebus now goes by car. I do hope they’re pleased with their award.
Worst Railway Station: Birmingham Snow Hill
While I have travelled to some excellent stations in the past year or so, I have also seen some very awful ones. Despite this, it was not difficult to award this to Birmingham Snow Hill.
Snow Hill is an excellent monument to the utter folly of replacing beautiful Victorian and Edwardian structures with modern concrete ones, inevitably with a rather grim shopping centre on top. To add insult to injury, the platform buildings appear to be made out of shipping containers. One gets the distinct feeling there that one is self-loading cargo rather than a passenger.
Honourable Mention: Walsall, for much the same reasons as Snow Hill. The only redeeming feature of Walsall station is the interesting glass shelter on one of the platforms.
Worst Train Operator: Thameslink
I’m sure that, if you have read just about anything I’ve ever written, you would have noticed that I am a big fan of trains and railways in general. It follows that this is a difficult award to choose, since I really don’t like saying trains are bad. That said, I also live in the real world and so I must admit, some train operators are bad.
One may question why I didn’t mention Northern. At the moment, Northern is beset by strikes, cancellations and delays, and they are really not providing the service the North deserves. So why don’t they win? Well, almost nothing that is going wrong is their fault. Not enough seats? Blame Network Rail’s shocking (sorry) record on electrification, Hitachi’s embarrassing cock-up north of the border (see this article) and the lack of foresight of the previous franchise. Cancelled trains on a Saturday? Blame the Government push for Driver Controlled Operation and the inevitable battle with the trade unions.
No, this years’ award goes to Thameslink, or to give them their full title, Govia Thameslink Railway (Railway is a bit misleading since they actually only run trains, but we’ll gloss over that). This is a huge management contract (yes, not a franchise) that spans Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern and Gatwick Express. You don’t need me to tell you about the failure of the May timetable, or the chaos on Southern, or the crap seating, since if you’ve been to London recently you’ll know all about it. I know I’m kicking a dead horse here, but the facts are inescapable. It doesn’t help that the new Thameslink trains, which are supposed to be a great leap forward, are painted exactly the same as the trains they replaced, so no-one who might be tempted to travel by train has any idea anything has changed.
However, the Department for Transport doesn’t get away scot free, since they are responsible for the management contract nonsense. This means that all the revenue goes directly to the DfT, and then they pay a fee to Govia to manage the day-to-day running. Thus Govia are plugged directly into politics, rather than customer service, and have little incentive to do better.
Most Laughable Statement by A Train Operator on Twitter: LNER
This award almost went to Thameslink, for claiming that their service was “Poundland Cooking Chocolate”, which is completely inaccurate since Poundland Cooking Chocolate may be obtained reliably in clearly advertised places during clearly advertised opening hours, which is more than could be said for Thamselink this year.
No, this goes to LNER, for calling their livery a “new look” several times, despite the fact that the only change was rubbing off the Virgin logo and writing LNER (with the N pointing Northwest, obviously). I suppose next time I put on slippers I’ll be flaunting my “new look” around the house…
Tourist Attraction That Isn’t Worth Your Money: Titanic Belfast
I know this may come as a surprise, but the problem with Titanic Belfast is that there are few actual artefacts, because Titanic herself now lies in pieces on the bottom of the Atlantic. The designers of this museum have tried to compensate by making it one of these interactive experience type things, and by making the building striking to look at, and it’s not awful, but it’s not worth the £18.50 adult ticket price.
Most Unpleasant Surprise: The Demise of Virgin Trains East Coast
It may be outside the media narrative, but Virgin Trains East Coast managed to succeed in running more trains, refurbishing their entire fleet in record time, and paying more to Government than the state-owned East Coast did. When they fell into financial trouble (through premium payments to the Government), the Government decided that rather than renegotiating, they’d give it to the state-controlled Operator of Last Resort, LNER, who have no links whatsoever to the much-loved steam railway and are instead run by Canadian firm SNC Lavalin, not the two British companies (Virgin and Stagecoach) who ran Virgin Trains East Coast.
It would appear that this was done so the Government wasn’t seen as “giving in” to a private company. It shows just how far from the reality the political narrative on the railways is these days, so expect to see more of this kind of nonsense in 2019.
Right, now that rather long and dull worst section is over, time for all the awards that might actually be worth winning.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Megabus
Yes, this year’s award goes to Megabus, for actually being pretty decent despite billing themselves as a budget coach operator. True, they’re not especially fast, or really that punctual, but hey, no coach operator really is, and you get a reasonably comfy seat (Thameslink take note), power and Wi-Fi. Add in a handy website and you have the makings of a worthy winner.
For more, see this article I wrote earlier in the year.
Honourable mention: Birmingham New Street First Class lounge. I was not expecting much, since Birmingham New Street is certainly not an elegant Victorian or Edwardian station (though it has improved considerably in recent years). However, the First Class lounge was clean, the service was excellent, staff polite, the furnishings tasteful and the self-service catering well stocked.
Best Bus Company: National Express West Midlands
Platinum buses, good value passes and regular timetables. What more can one ask for? I have gone on about this before (see this article) but suffice to say, as buses go, you can’t go far wrong.
Honourable mention: First
This comes for literally no other reason than the fact that they run one bus in Birmingham (the 144, in case you were wondering) and it is quite amusing to see all the National Express buses dwarf a tiny little green First bus. At least they tried, I suppose.
Best Railway Station: Rothley, Great Central Railway
I will grant you that this one isn’t on the national network, but it is one of the nicest places I’ve ever been. Rothley lies near-ish the village from which it gets its name, just south of Quorn & Woodhouse. It has been beautifully restored to its Edwardian condition, in almost every detail (if you don’t believe me, have a look at old postcards of the station). Ellis’ tea room is also well worth a visit, if you have the time.
Honourable mention: Birmingham Moor Street. By far the best station in Birmingham, with consideration given to the stations heritage at every turn. Concrete is very hard to find here – it’s all lovely brickwork, ironmongery and glass. The Centenary Lounge is also a lovely place to stop for a coffee, having been done up in a wonderful art-deco style. It’s not cheap, but these coffee places rarely are anyways.
Best Train Operator: Chiltern Railways
While there are many good candidates for this award, Chiltern has just clinched it. The obvious question is why, in a year when I have travelled first class, at 125 mph, on tilting trains and grand old High Speed Trains, have Chiltern, a relatively small operator, clinched it?
All I can say is that they get the basics right. On their silver trains, even standard class has impressive legroom, curtains, proper sized tables, tasteful furnishings and plenty of natural light. The old mark 3 coaches have really been brought up to date, with doors that fit flush to the bodyside, a far more pleasing result than some newer rolling stock. Not that there are any fancy gimmicks – the train doesn’t tilt, it doesn’t reach particularly high speeds and it doesn’t do any bi-mode or electrical magic.
Now I will grant you that not all their trains are quite that good, but even on their more basic diesel multiple unit trains, the seats have plenty of padding and the interior environment has been made pleasant enough, at least on those serving Birmingham Moor Street. Other operators (and the Department for Transport) would do well to take notice.
Tourist Attraction That Is Worth Your Money: National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
While entry is technically free, they do ask for a voluntary donation of a few of your hard earned Great British Pounds, which is definitely worth it.
For your few quid, you get a museum packed to the eyeballs with stuff, from well over 6000 years ago (in fact, I never managed to get through the entire Early Peoples exhibition, despite spending hours there) right up to more recent stuff (huge numbers of old computers, aeroplanes, cars, and so on). Basically, if you are in Edinburgh, do go along, you won’t regret it (but you will want to go back).
This year, as (hopefully) I have been able to get across, has definitely had its fair share of good and bad. Although I didn’t try to be comprehensive, if there’s anything glaring that I’ve left out, please do let me know.
And finally, a small thank you. Yes, I know this isn’t exactly a popular website and I know that much of what I write is waffle, but I really do enjoy writing this stuff and I’m rather glad that you (yes, you, the handsome/beautiful/charming /devilishly clever one reading this on your computing device of some description) do read this stuff, if the people I talk to are anything to go by. I do hope to bring you some more regular content in 2019, but as usual I cannot promise anything.