John C. Kirk

Jan. 26th, 2014

12:32 am - Lapland logistics

It's now 8 weeks until the Winter Swimming World Championships, and I've just finalised my travel arrangements. There's a team of us going from my local swimming club, and most people are flying from Stansted to Tampere, then taking the train to Rovaniemi. However, I try to avoid planes nowadays (to reduce my oil dependency) so I'm taking a different route. The Seat61 website was very useful here, so I used that as a starting point, and I'll be using trains and ferries to get there and back.

The main snag is that this takes a lot longer, so between this and LARP I've already booked most of my annual leave for the year. It's also more expensive than flying, so I don't think people are going to abandon air travel en masse while it's quicker and cheaper. The other complication is that I've had to book my travel from lots of different companies, and the tickets have become available at different times, so this has been an ongoing job for several months. (I registered for the swimming races on 2013-06-19 and booked my final train tickets on 2014-01-24.) On the plus side, I think that travelling by train is generally more civilised than going by plane (e.g. I can take a bottle of water with me and I get more legroom), and I should get the opportunity to see a bit of the various cities when I change vehicle.

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Nov. 10th, 2013

11:26 pm - London tourism

Yesterday I had a tourist day out in London, showing my nephews some of the sights. Here are a few notes on the day, which may be useful for anyone else who wants to do something similar. In particular, I tried to fit in as many different forms of transport as possible.

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Oct. 1st, 2013

07:23 pm - Penalty fares

Well, that's annoying: today is the second day in a row that I've been issued with an £80 penalty fare notice for "failing to produce a valid ticket" on the train. I've appealed both of them with IRCAS (Independent Revenue Collection And Support), and hopefully they'll see things my way. However, my experience may be useful as a cautionary tale for the rest of you.

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Maybe the moral of this story is that I need to be more active, and cycle the whole way to/from work (27 km each way) rather than taking the train. Or maybe I should stick to cardboard season tickets (for as long as they're around) so that I don't need to rely on technology. Bah.

Edit (15-Oct-2013): The IAS have now replied to both appeals. Both letters were pretty much the same: "Having assessed this case your appeal has been accepted." They've said that I have to pay £1.50 for each journey (the equivalent of a single fare); that's slightly odd since I've already paid that for one of the journeys, so I may need to poke a bit further there. Still, it's basically a happy ending. I'll print these letters out and keep them with me in case I have any more trouble with ticket inspectors.

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Dec. 5th, 2012

10:07 pm - Subway death

There's been a bit of controversy in the news regarding an incident in New York. Basically, a man was pushed in front of a subway train, and subsequently died. Another man was on the platform, and he took photos of the incident: one of these photos subsequently appeared on the front page of the New York Post. Some people are criticising the photographer for taking pictures rather than doing anything to help; he claims that he was too far away to do anything, and that he was just trying to use his flash to attract the train driver's attention (i.e. the photos were accidental). For more info, see the BBC, The Guardian, or The Daily Mail. (The Mail seem to have taken the strongest position of moral outrage against the photographer, while also including a video of the incident on their website.)

I wasn't there, and I don't know any of the people concerned. I also understand that if you make a decision in a rush, you might think of something better later. So, I'll give the photographer the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he's telling the truth. That said, I don't recommend following his strategy if you ever wind up in a similar situation.

Transport for London have a guide to filming and photography, which explicitly says: "Flash photography or additional lighting is not permitted on any platform." As I understand it, that's for safety. If the train has just come out of a dark tunnel, then someone uses a camera flash, the driver will be temporarily blinded. So, in a case like this, that would make it harder for the driver to see the person on the track ahead. I think it would be better to find an alarm on the platform, if only to call the emergency services after the collision.

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Jul. 10th, 2012

11:54 pm - Olympic cycling

I cycle to work as part of my daily commute. However, being lazy I normally cycle to a station, take my bike on the train, and cycle again at the other end; if I cycled the whole way then it would be a 55km round trip. There are restrictions on carrying "normal" bikes at peak times, which is fair enough: basically you can't take them on trains which arrive in London (certain stations) between 07:00 and 10:00, or which leave London between 16:00 and 19:00. If you have a folded bike, you can carry it on any train, and the Brompton is ideally designed for this because it's so compact. For instance, if I'm standing in the door area of a train with my back to the handrail and glass partition, I can stash my bike in the dead space behind my legs which would otherwise be unusable.

On my journey home tonight, one of the train staff stopped to talk to me: she was warning all cyclists that we wouldn't be able to bring our bikes on trains during the Olympic period. I'd heard about that, but I thought that folding bikes were still exempt, i.e. they'd just be applying rush hour rules all day. I asked her about this twice, and she insisted that the ban applies to all bikes. This was a Southern service, so I checked their website when I got in: During the London 2012 Games, we are expecting our trains to be even busier than usual. We welcome fully folded (Brompton style) bikes on our trains at any time [...] Non fully folded bikes will not be allowed on any Southern or Gatwick Express train on the following routes. South West Trains have a similar policy: From Friday 27 July to Sunday 12 August and Wednesday 29 August to Sunday 9 September, non-folding cycles WILL NOT BE ALLOWED on any South West Trains services. We welcome fully folded (Brompton style) bikes on our trains at any time.

That all seems clear enough, and I can understand why they emphasise "Brompton style"; I think it's cheating a bit to have a full-size "folding" bike that just hinges in the middle. The problem is that the member of staff I spoke to was clearly misinformed. She said that she'd heard about this in a briefing this morning, so there will probably be other people working for the railway with the same misconception. I think my best bet is to print out the relevant policy documents from the websites, then highlight the key sections and carry them with me. Still, it will get a bit annoying if I have to keep having the same argument every day. My alternative is to cycle the whole way, but I'll need to modify my route to avoid the Zil lanes.

More generally, I can understand why trains are going to be busy in central London. However, it seems odd that South West Trains are banning bikes from their entire network. As one Guardian comment put it: So if you are a commuter who rides to the station in, say Fareham, and takes their bike on the train into Southampton then tough, you'll have to find another way to get to work in the morning.

Oh well, hopefully things will be back to normal in 2 more months...

Edit: South West Trains have now reversed their bike ban except for the Olympic Cycling weekend (28th/29th July).

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Feb. 12th, 2012

11:34 pm - Trainspotting

Last summer I spent a few days travelling around Europe. Basically, I took the Eurostar from London to Paris, then another train from Paris to Frankfurt for a wedding. Afterwards, I came back to Paris, then went down to Disneyland. Finally, I came back through Paris again, and took the Eurostar back to London. I knew about the wedding several months in advance, but I didn't really plan it properly; this is partly because I spent most of the time preparing for my LEJOG attempt.

Hopefully there will be some advice here that's useful to other people. In particular:

It was also interesting to observe how different countries handle public transport: I think that the UK would benefit from adopting some of those ideas.

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Dec. 2nd, 2010

12:34 am - Dashing (or not) through the snow

As most people have noticed, it's been snowing in England recently. However, some local authorities and train companies handle this better than others.

Yesterday (Wednesday) I cycled to the station. I normally cycle to Norbury (zone 3), but this time I went for East Croydon (zone 5) because it was nearest. My basic mantra was "slow and steady": the roads had been gritted, so I got there fine. The same applied to the other end, going from Willesden Junction. I'm not sure which council that is: I think we're on the border of Brent and something else. Anyway, I cycled from the station to the office, then back again at the end of the day, without any mishaps. Even the minor roads had been gritted, with just the occasional icy patch. The important rule there is to keep going: don't use the brakes (which will make you skid), and don't try to steer. Instead, just stop pedalling and trundle along on momentum, so that the wheels keep turning slowly.

After that, things went a bit wonky. Trains between Willesden Junction and Clapham Junction (London Overground) were running on schedule. However, trains between Clapham Junction and East Croydon (Southern) were a bit frelled. Nothing ran on schedule, so I just had to wait and see what turned up, and the first 3 trains were completely crammed full, although bizarrely the 4th was almost empty. My cycling gear (lycra) is good while I'm moving, but it gets a bit chilly if I'm standing around for 30 minutes.

Once I came out of East Croydon, I saw that the road was covered in slush, so I didn't even attempt to cycle on it, particularly since my route starts with a downhill slope. Instead, I pushed the bike along in the hope that it would be better a bit further along. It wasn't, but I discovered a huge traffic jam; it took one of my friends 3h15m to drive 3½ miles! I wound up pushing my bike all the way home: it would normally take me 5 minutes to ride, or 20 minutes to walk, but in this case it was 30 minutes. My cycling shoes are "mountain bike style", so I can walk in them, but they don't have brilliant grips, so I went slowly to avoid slipping over. I noticed that the front wheel of my Brompton was turning normally but the back wheel was just sliding along, which also meant that it tended to slip to the side. I didn't figure out the cause until I got home: as the wheel turned, it picked up slush, and this had built up between the wheel and the mudguard to such an extent that it held the wheel still. I did see one guy go past on a unicycle, so I was very impressed by his balance! I was also quite impressed by the conduct of the drivers: it was almost eerily quiet in Croydon, with no blaring horns. The traffic barely moved, but people apparently understood that nobody could get out of the way.

Today (Thursday) I left the bike at home. This meant that I could wear extra layers and chunky boots (with decent grip). The roads were a bit clearer, but the pavements were still covered in snow, and all Southern trains were either delayed or cancelled. So, it took me a while to get to work, but I was amazed at the difference. Again, the Overground lines were fine, and the roads/pavements are almost completely clear. Apart from a few patches of snow/ice, you wouldn't even know that it had been snowing. Coming home in the evening involved more delays from Southern, and more snowdrifts in glorious Croydonia. According to the council, they've cleared entrances to stations, but there's no evidence of that at South Croydon. I'd expect snow to be worse as you head further north, so it's odd that Croydon are having so much trouble in south London.

Oh well, let us see what tomorrow brings.

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Mar. 11th, 2010

03:15 pm - #Come on along, get on the floor, everybody lock your toilet door

On the train this morning, three people in a row failed to lock the toilet door, and two of them then got caught with their pants down (in both the English and American senses of the word).

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On the flipside, I had some trouble the last time I took the bus from Oxford to London. I locked the door, but a drunk guy tried to force it open from the outside. I held onto the handle (so that he could feel resistance) and called out "Occupied!", but he still kept tugging. In the end, I let him open it so that he could see me, then he let me finish. When I came out, he apologised, and said that he thought the lock was stuck, so I'm guessing that he used a coin/screwdriver to get in.

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Jan. 28th, 2010

10:31 pm - Oysterology

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, you can now use Oyster cards on National Rail; this is a good idea, but they could have implemented it better. Since then, I've had several problems with it, where I've had to pay the £4.30 maximum fare (in addition to any price capping). They say: "Please remember to always touch in and out during every journey." However, the truth seems to be a bit more complicated, so take heed of my experiences...

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I'll use this LJ post as the basis for a letter to TfL, but I doubt that they'll pay any attention to it. In the meantime, it's giving me an incentive to avoid trains altogether, and do more cycling.

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Jan. 3rd, 2010

05:57 pm - Oyster on National Rail

I've just been to the station to renew my season ticket. My cunning plan was to avoid the queues tomorrow morning, but lots of other people had the same idea, so I wound up in a big queue today instead. Ah well, at least I wasn't rushing for a train today, so it worked out ok overall.

The big change for 2010 is that you can now use Oyster pay as you go on National Rail. This is a good thing, but it's not perfect. The main advantages of Oyster PAYG are price and speed. For instance, a single bus ticket in 2009 cost £1 on Oyster or £2 in cash, so it's better for the individual to use Oyster. Meanwhile, if I'm on the bus and there's a line of people getting on, I've noticed that it's a lot quicker for everyone to walk past and bleep their card rather than having to fumble around for coins, so Oyster benefits all the other passengers as well.

On the tube, you can extend a travelcard. For instance, suppose that I have a travelcard for zones 1-2, and then I travel from zone 1 to zone 3. As long as I swipe in and out, I'll just get charged for the zone 2 to zone 3 journey, which is cheaper than zone 1 to zone 3. However, this gets a bit more complicated on National Rail, as described at the London Reconnections blog. Basically, you have to get an Oyster Extension Permit in a situation like this: it's free, but you still have to queue up at the ticket office for it. That's obviously slower than just swiping your card at the barrier, and you still have to swipe anyway.

The other issue is that you can't put a rail season ticket onto an Oyster card; that still requires a paper ticket. In my case, I have a season ticket between Norbury and Willesden Junction (rather than a zone based travelcard). Now, suppose that I want to travel to East Croydon. If I swipe in at Willesden Junction and swipe out at East Croydon, I'll be charged for the entire journey, even though part of it is already covered by my season ticket. I could buy a paper ticket at Willesden Junction (from Norbury to East Croydon), but I can't do that with Oyster. So, that means that I need to get off the train at Norbury, go out through the ticket barriers with my paper season ticket, then come back in through the barriers using my Oyster card, and wait for the next train. On this route, all the faffing around will add 15 minutes to my journey (taking the slow trains), and it means that I can't take the fast train from Clapham Junction to East Croydon.

The good news is that Oyster fares are a bit cheaper than cash fares. In 2009, off-peak journeys cost £2.60 from Norbury to East Croydon, or £3.00 from Clapham Junction to East Croydon. In 2010, the Oyster fares are:

Willesden Junction to East Croydon£2.70£2.00
Clapham Junction to East Croydon£2.70£2.00
Norbury to East Croydon£2.20£1.70

Previously "off-peak" was any time after 09:30, but now there are two peak times: 06:30-09:00 and 16:00-19:00. That's understandable, and it's similar to the rules for unfolded bikes on trains. Anyway, the simplest approach for me is to swipe in at Willesden Junction and ignore my season ticket. At peak times that will be 10p more expensive than the old cash fare (which I can live with), and at off-peak times it will be 60p cheaper. It would be nice to pay the "real" fare, but at the moment it's not worth the hassle.

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