Train tracks

Alternative to travelling by train – the car

Train tracks

Taking the train to go away travelling seems a priori an excellent means of transport, whether on long distance as an alternative to taking the plane, to reach your airport or to get to your destination directly. The other alternative would be to drive and many people drop this option thinking the train is less stressful as they just have to sit back and relax instead of having to negotiate traffic jams. Well, think again because when you compare train and car, train travel is not as good as it seems.

Luggage trouble

For starters, whenever you go on holiday you are bound to have lots of luggage with you. The more people travelling together, the more luggage you will have. In the train, if your suitcase is too big, it won’t fit in the overhead rack and you will have to place it at the end of the carriage. This means that despite the usual announcement to keep all belongings with you, you are unable to do so. Anyone can pick your luggage at a stop and be gone with it with you none the wiser. It is not possible to keep an eye on your luggage if you can’t see it, especially if your seat is facing the other direction. If you are lucky, some trains have a luggage compartment in the middle of the carriage.

It’s not just the security aspect. Who likes having to drag suitcases up and down stairs when there are no lifts or block people on the escalators? Who likes having to rush from platform to platform when changing trains with luggage in tow? Have you ever tried taking the tube in London in rush hour with 2 big suitcases? Not an easy feat.

Compare this with travelling in a car. You put your big heavy suitcase in the boot or if you are a girl, you get your guy to do it. You drive to your destination or you get your fellow to drive and use the sat-nav. Once there, you take away your suitcase and that’s the end. No fear that someone may steal your bags, no need to haul your bags up and down stairs, escalators and across large stations.

How private?

There is the privacy aspect in trains. Some people may prefer to travel quietly, with no kids shouting next to them, no crying babies, no loud conversation on mobile phones. You may be able to get a quiet coach but they are not always quiet! And what will stop your neighbour from being smelly or dirty? What if you want to have an intimate smooch with your partner?

You may well be the noisy one in the train too. What if you like to sing while travelling or simply have to make several phone calls? Even in carriages that are not quiet zone, you would probably look out of place if you start singing loudly and having a few cans of beer with you might well get you kicked out. The train is not the best place to carry out business or discuss your private life. Your car is. And as long as you are not driving, you can consume as much alcohol as you want in your vehicle.

Can you really relax?How about comfort? Train travel is touted as comfortable and relaxing but apart from neighbours getting on your nerves or restricting your exuberant behaviour, you can’t really drop to the shop to get some chewing gums, light a cigarette or get off to stretch your legs unless you are ready to miss your train at a stop.

Not only can you do all that if you drive your own vehicle, but you can also take detours to take pictures, stop at places to visit briefly, pop in shops to buy travel materials or have a nice meal in a restaurant to really make your trip enjoyable.

Prohibitively expensive

Train tickets in the UK is known to be prohibitively expensive. If there is more than one of you travelling, then it might make more financial sense to get a car as the cost will be fix no matter how many of you travel.

First-class con

You also have the option of travelling first-class but why would you want to pay a premium in order to be late just like the rest?

How green?

Travelling by car is often touted as harming the environment. But many trains run on diesel and most non-commuterOld rusted train routes – therefore those that holidaymakers will use – often see nearly empty trains running. The same is true off-peak. While trains are crammed full of commuters during the rush hour, some trains can become deserted at other hours. A car with only one person is indeed a waste of resources but the bigger your group, the more efficient it becomes, especially if you fill a bigger vehicle like a passenger minivan.

If decision-makers were serious about encouraging people to use the train instead of the car, they would start making it more affordable.

Timetables and routes

You can only travel where the train will take you and when it will take you. You have to adapt your schedule and route to theirs, not the other way. With a car, get total freedom of where you want to go and when. Travel at midnight if you want to.

Delays

Trains in the UK suffer from constant delays. All excuses are valid and the great British weather is a favourite excuse to blame. Every season is bad; just pick your excuse:
Too hot, too cold, especially with the snow, too windy,  with leaves on tracks a favourite, and even frozen rain!

It is not uncommon to hear of horrific stories of people trapped in trains and more a year later. South West Trains has a bad reputation among commuters and Northern Rail in particular suffers from chronic delays.

Apart from the delays due to the seasons, you can expect acute discomfort that goes with it: too hot in summer or air-con not working, freezing in winter, heating not working or surprise surprise, air-con at full blast! Passengers have even experienced leaking carriages when it rains. As holidaymaker, you will unlikely experience the sardine-packed and sweltering carriages of the rush hour that commuters endure, unless you are one of them or you are mad enough to travel during these times.

Engineering work

Finally, it brings great pleasure to Network Rail, the not-for-profit body in charge of the rail infrastructure, to schedule engineering works during the holiday season such as Easter and Christmas in order to bring maximum disruption to passenger. Best bet – avoid train travel during those crucial times!

Refunds and complaints

If you think you can complain and get a refund for delays, you might be in for a disappointment. While refund forms and procedures are easy to find,each train operator has its own set of requirements in order to qualify for a refund. And these criteria are set in their favour. Some might require the delay to be at least 1 hr, others will claim that the train must be stopped between stations.

If you want to claim a refund or see if you are eligible, visit www.traindelays.co.uk or share your delays on www.trainrefunds.co.uk so others are aware of the quality of servive of train operators. Keeping quiet about it, even if you are not eligible for a refund won’t help anyone.

Drive by car to your holidays

Car travel

Let’s look at the other side of the coin here because car travel is not perfect either: deadly accidents, traffic jams, pollution, expensive fuel and car insurance, road tax. If you are hiring a car, you might get away with the last two though. However, as we saw, trains can be polluting as well and have their fair share of delays and deadly accidents due to mismanagements.

All this though is the price to pay to enjoy the benefits of travelling by car:

  • freedom of travel at any time, anywhere
  • Comfort
  • Privacy
  • Ease of use – no luggage handling

 

 

 

Cycling in cities

6 reasons to cycle in big cities

Cycling in cities

Cycling in big cities may seem at first glance to be intimidating due to the volume of traffic. The roads are packed full with motor vehicles all trying to squeeze past you. And who wants to suffocate in the exhaust fumes and noise while one could be leisurely cycling down a countryside lane admiring the scenery? Nevertheless, you’ll still find cyclists in city centres. Here’s why.

1. Slow traffic

Certainly, city centres are congested and because of that very fact, the high volume of traffic can only move slowly. As a cyclist, you’ll be able to overtake stationary vehicles easily and they will have plenty of time to see you and stop or slow down. Slow-moving vehicles are much less of a danger than a car squeezing past you at high speed down a narrow country lane. The speed limit of course is also much lower in build-up areas.

2. Park anywhere

Who hasn’t had a problem finding a parking space in town, especially for big SUVs vehicles? If you haven’t then it’s because you probably have deep enough pockets to go for the most expensive car parks. Most parking spaces in towns are not free and they are for a fixed duration only, meaning you have to watch time and rush back if necessary. Sometimes, you might even have to park far away and walk quite a distance simply because there is no parking nearby. For bicycles, there are plenty of stands provided all over the place to lock them. If there are no dedicated bicycle stands nearby against which to lock your bike, or if they are all taken, you can always lock it to a sturdy post. There are posts on every street, from a lamp post to a stop sign. Just find a place that is out of the way and will not get in pedestrians’ way. Where would you find these stands in countryside? Not that you really need them though!

3. Close destinations

Another good thing in the city is that you have good chances of finding a bike shop should you encounter a mechanical problem with your bike. And in London, you can always take your bike with you on the Tube on certain lines. It’s not just a bike shop you might want but any shop, whether you’re going for food shopping, clothes or just out and about in town. Cities are compact and you can do and find many things, whether going out for a drink, to the cinema and so on. As they are not far from each other, they are easily accessible by bike. And of course, you’ll be able to lock your bike just in front.

4. Commuting

This leads us to one of the most popular reason to cycle: beat the rush hour. Have you taken the metro in Paris at peak time? Have you tried to drive on the road? It’s rush hour there throughout the day. By jumping on a bike, you avoid the crushing crowd in the train, overcrowded platforms and delayed trains. The bike is your freedom to go where you want, when you want. You really have to try it to experience and enjoy that freedom. The slow traffic and availability of locking your bike anywhere are two more reasons why commuting by bicycle is so much better.

Oh, and did we say it’s free? Do you still want to pay the train companies for the privilege of being late?

5. Roads

Roads in towns and cities are usually better maintained and in better condition. You will rarely have flooding or deep pockets of muds across the tarmac and there are fewer potholes. The streets tend to be wider and have wide pavements on each side. Narrow streets are usually turned into one ways or have speed breakers placed to slow down vehicles.

At night, even though you are recommended to have a light, the street lighting is bright enough that you see everything clearly. And at that time, the lack of traffic makes it a real pleasure to slide down the tarmac smoothly on two wheels. You own the road then!

6. Lost your way?

This one-way system tends to make roads a maze to navigate through and if you don’t know the Bike traffic signarea, you can get lost easily or take a wrong turn and be unable to come back to your steps. The sheer number of roads, avenues, alleys, streets and boulevards just make it more complicated to find your way around, let alone the traffic lights and road markings that dictate you take the correct lane early on before you make a turn or go straight ahead.

Well, all this applies with motor vehicles. If you are on a bike and feel lost, confused or overwhelmed, just jump off your bike, go onto the pavement and turn around if you need to. You might still have the same difficulty finding your way but if you took the wrong turn or find yourself down a 1-way, it’s easy to come back. Wide pavements make you turn into a pedestrian at any time. Just be careful not to hit pedestrians with your pedals and handlebar!

Sometimes, you may not have a choice about cycling in the busy towns and cities. Rain, traffic, noise and pollution tend to make it unenjoyable compared to the tranquil scenery of rural areas. But there are always two sides to a coin so learn to appreciate what’s there. Paris and London have bikes for hire and they have already proved to be hugely popular.

Can travel be environment-friendly?

Global warming never happened so now it’s called climate change. Politicians call for lower carbon gases emissions and a move away from fossil fuels while they travel the world over in planes. There are many confusing and contradicting stories, myths, facts and research about the environment and many of this is due to the vast vested interests that various companies have in the issue. One of the biggest industries to have an impact on the environment is travel.

In the air

People can travel by car, train, boat or plane but the latter remain the most popular and often the only option for long-distance travel. Those defending the airline industry, from travel agents to plane manufacturers, say that travelling by plane produces less carbon emission per person per kilometre than by car. There is no doubt about the efficiency of planes, able to cover vast distances by flying through the shortest routes in the air where there is little friction. Compare this to travelling by car, where friction between tyre and tarmac eventually wears away the rubber; roads need to be built at a very high cost and on average only 5 people fit in a car.

You can make the car more efficient per person by carrying more passengers, so the bus or coach is one level up the ‘green’ ladder. The plane takes it further by cramming in more and more people. Didn’t Ryanair want its passengers to stand up during the flight so that it can put more on board?

However, don’t take at face value what you see and hear. Planes require enormous amount of energy to take off. There is no other fuel at the moment, other than fossil fuels, that contain enough energy per kg to power a plane to the air. There is simply no other option. The figure often quoted to flatter plane travel is the carbon emission per person. This works only because there can be many more people in a plane compared to a car. However, irrespective of the number of people on board a plane, the aircraft will still take off and fly. As most aircraft do not fly at 100% capacity and there are many aircrafts flying at well below 50% capacity, the real figure for the emission per person is much much higher.

But let’s face it: we often don’t have a choice when flying. No one will take a coach from Europe to Asia. By the time you get there, it will be time to come back. The term necessary evil is quite fitting here.

What to do if you care for the environment?

The first step was to recognise that not all that is claimed about the environment is always correct.

Which one is better for the environment: drying your hands in the public toilets with tissues or the electric hand dryer? The electric dryer you might say. But what if the electricity is produced from burning fossil fuels? From nuclear reactors? There was also a carbon footprint involved in manufacturing the appliance. Are tissues any better? You need to grow the wood, cut it down, transport it to the factory, turn it into tissue paper that needs to be regularly replenished in the toilets all over the world. But at least growing the tree used up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The only way to find out is by calculating the emissions from each process and comparing.

How about recycling newspapers? Is this really a kind gesture to the environment? How much energy is necessary in the recycling chain? During the transport? Wouldn’t it be simpler to replace the cut-down trees with young ones which will provide more newspapers? This is what is meant by managed forests. Here again, growing trees means taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Will we really know if recycling paper is better than growing new trees?

Here is a poorly explained article by the Daily Mail on why reusable cotton bags are not better than plastic bags. Whether the research behind it is right or wrong, it pays to think about it before following the crowd and buying a not-so-environment-friendly cotton bag. Intensive agricultural techniques coupled with converting cotton pods into clean usable cotton fabric may leave a big carbon footprint behind. Add to it the bulky transportation of the bags from one end of the world where cotton is grown to another end of the world where cotton bags are used. Plastic bags may not degrade quickly but that may be its advantage – you can reuse it just like cotton bags and many people do so.

So next time you fly or feel guilty about some practice that you think is harmful to the environment, think again. Travel may not be as environment-friendly as some want you to believe, but there are also other issues that people conveniently gloss over.

London tube travel: mastering the ticket system

What is the tube? Many people new to London might not know that the tube is just another name for the metro, subway or underground train system. London’s underground train network is one of the oldest in the world, the oldest being probably Moscow’s.

You need a ticket before you get on the train. You can buy tickets at the ticket office or at the machines. On Sundays and bank holidays, ticket offices in smaller train stations are closed and if the ticket machine is out of order, you will be unable to buy a ticket before getting on the train. Fortunately, in these circumstances, you can buy a ticket at your destination before crossing the barrier.

There are usually guards at the barriers but again, in smaller stations, sometimes the guard is elsewhere, smoking a cigarette or on a platform. When they leave barriers unattended, they usually open these in case some people have a problem with their ticket and are unable to get in or out.

This means that if you cannot buy a ticket before getting on the train because the station is unmanned and the machine is down, the barriers will be open and you will be able to board your train. At your destination, if you are getting off at a quiet station outside central London on a Sunday or bank holiday, chances are the barriers will be open and unmanned. In this case you will be able to get out without needing a ticket, thus having travelled without having bought a ticket. For this reason, there are ticket inspectors operating.

There are ticket inspectors on board the trains but these are very very rare and you might never encounter them. Most often, ticket inspectors are within the station doing spot checks and during rush hours in order to catch most people. If you are travelling without a ticket on a Sunday and a ticket inspector stops you, then it is not your fault if you haven’t been able to buy a ticket at the ticket office because it was closed.

Oyster card

Prior to the introduction of oyster cards, it was easy to pass on a day or weekly ticket to someone else or buy a ticket at your destination and pretend that you got on just one stop before in order to pay less. There were also many ticket touts taking tickets from passengers who no longer needed them at the end of the day and selling these on for a profit to other passengers unwilling to pay full price for a ticket. London Underground was losing a lot of money that way and pushed hard for the introduction of Oyster cards.

Oyster cards are plastic cards with an embedded microchip which records all details of travel journeys. When you buy a season ticket, you have to hand over your personal details. London Underground is then able to track all the journeys that you make and also has your personal details to match them. Despite this massive breach of privacy, it was allowed to go ahead with the Oyster card system. The UK government also has a vested interest in this to combat terrorism, especially after the tube bombings of the 7th July 2005. With the Oyster card tracking all passengers’ movements, they can no pick the closest station as their point of entry when buying tickets at the gates.

Get a ticket receipt

The most important thing to remember when using the Oyster card is to get a receipt of the money you have put onto the card. If there is ever a mistake and the money doesn’t appear on your card, you cannot see it unless you go to a machine or the ticket office and get your card checked. Previously, when you handed over your money, you would get a paper ticket with the value on it. With an Oyster card, nothing shows whether there is money on the card or not. This is why it is very important to get a receipt when putting money on the card, even if it is for £1. That way, if someone inspects your card and says there is no money on it, you will be able to show the receipt and not have to pay a £50 fine because of £1.

Read more: Stratford transport hub