Postcard From Edinburgh

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Edinburgh’s Market Street from Princess Street.
View of Edinburgh’s Old Town from the Scott Monument,
Saskia Heijltjes
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Gentleman and lady travellers of a certain age may be divided into two tribes: Princess or Market. I’ve always been a Princess man. Let me explain. Arrival at Edinburgh Waverley always drew me up the steps beside the old North British Hotel (now renamed the Balmoral). From here to the Scott Monument, Jenners departments store (with its irresistible cafe) and not only Princess Street proper, but Princess Steet Gardens with its roundabout path to Edinburgh Castle.

The Waverley Hotel also stands on Princess Street, where the family stayed when an uncle competed in the Powderhall sprints. Don’t browse the old guest books expecting to find a Worth-Saying. As an amateur athlete, he competed under a different name in the professional New Year handicap races. Remaining with sport, wendyball fans might head left along Princess Street on the one-and-a-half mile hike to the Gorgy Road home of Heart of Midlothian. Or right for a similar-lengthed march to Hibernian’s Easter Road – halfway to the docks at Leith.

On the other side of Waverley Station lay I knew not what) beyond it being called Market Street), until a trip to Edinburgh the other Thursday with Mrs AWS. All will be revealed, but first we have to get there.

In the mad world of railway pricing, avoiding peak times, booking early and reserving seats can make first-class travel expensive rather than extortionate. These days, our Debatable Lands home and the Auld Reekie capital of Scotland are separated by a journey of only 1 hour and 13 minutes. However, the first-class price for the pair of us on our Two Together railcard is still a hefty £200. Given the return leg cost double the fare out, Standard Premium called – a saving of £124. Since Avanti West Coast (the old Virgin Rail) Standard Premium is a reclassified first-class carriage, the only difference is the food. £124 for breakfast and an afternoon snack (avoiding the peaks we would leave Edinburgh at 2:52 pm) is unacceptable. Standard Premium it was.

In keeping with the lob-sided nature of a day return, further investigation showed a first-class upgrade to be £27 out and £73 back. An afternoon snack of roast swan, perhaps? I bit at £27 for two first-class tickets in the Edinburgh direction. Not a believer in smartphones, I selected the ticket machine option. The following Sunday after church found me strolling to the railway station to do battle with the ticket machine, which behaved itself and dispensed but five tickets – two outs, two backs and a receipt. My record is 40+ after using a journey-splitting website to take the family to Chester. A nuisance, keeping them all in the right order became a struggle. The children would shuffle them while I wasn’t looking.

Beyond the ticket machine, I couldn’t help but spot a deserted railway station and a queue outside for replacement buses. If this happened on our trip, I’d be the grump insisting upon a seat behind the driver and a stop at a motorway service station for £27’s worth of complimentary fry-up. The following Thursday, with no sign of a replacement bus service, our 11:02 departed only two minutes late. As soon as we found our seats, a waitress took our order. Still on the breakfast menu, we ordered two Great British breakfasts. So far, so good, with the caveat: don’t build up your hopes. Sure enough, a stressed chef made his way along the aisle and, gasping, listed all the ingredients he’d run out of. Not to worry.

‘Do the best you can with what you’ve got, cook.’

As if an eager subaltern reporting the remains of a decimated regiment to a dopey colonel, the unhappy chef listed salmon, two rashers of bacon, scrambled egg, toast and a sausage sandwich.

‘Fry it up and pile it in front of us.’

Not how it works. Oh, well. Mrs AWS chose the scrambled egg and toast. I volunteered for the sausage sandwich. Both best described as ‘supermarket cafe’ and not worth the extra £27. Coffee was served. The trolley returned only once more, but to clear up the mess we managed to make despite our meagre portions rather than to dispense more drinkies. Boooo.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Not exactly roast swan.
© Always Worth Saying 2024, Going Postal

In conclusion, first-class isn’t worth it whilst being too cheap. Too cheap? Yes, too cheap. Prices must be raised to improve the clientele. A family occupied the table next to us. A well-behaved toddler accompanied a mother covered in tattoos and a father who could afford first-class tickets but not a razor blade. Worse, they were American. For once those quiet Americans (with which the Colonies abound) who are often kept Stateside while the loud ones are weeded out, given passports, even louder clothes and sent to ‘do’ Europe. As we discovered, in particular to do ‘Ed-in-berg’ on a bright May Thursday.

No matter, the trip was smooth and fast. Between our house and the Scottish capital lies not much. From sea level when crossing the Esk as it empties into the Solway, we climb to Beatock Summit. Much of the route is away from roads. The most beautiful countryside surrounds – gentle rising land interrupted by the occasional slow-moving (or stuck) wind farm. Approaching Beatock Bank, forestry intervenes, as does the M74. Railway line and motorway squeeze through a gap in the hills, searching for the infant River Clyde on the other side of the summit.

Gone are the days when London trains divided at Carstairs Junction, with the front portion proceeding north to Glasgow and the rear being dragged by a diesel engine eastwards to Edinburgh. A crawl around Carstairs South Junction reaches the now electrified line to our destination. The curve of the junction is tight enough to observe the other end of the train out of the window. Imagine the view from the caboose of a mile-long freight train on Norfolk & Southern’s Pennsylvania Horseshoe Curve. From the other side of the carriage, the view is of The State Hospital, a (very) secure mental hospital, also called Carstairs Hospital.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Avanti Pendolino passing Carstairs South Junction.
© Always Worth Saying 2024, Going Postal

Beyond lay mist, with not a lot to view until the environs of Edinburgh – the first call being Edinburgh Haymarket. Here, the train is too long for the platforms, requiring first-class passengers to enter the Hades of Standard to de-train. An excellent excuse to talk about the rolling stock and service. We’re aboard an 11-car Pendolino, a West Coast Mainline tilting train capable of 125 mph. Built as nine-car Virgin Train sets, some were lengthened by two carriages as rail ridership boomed with the upgrading of the line from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh via the Trent Valley (Rugby – Stafford direct) and the West Midlands: London – Rugby – Coventry, Wolverhampton, Birminghams International and New Street – Stafford.

At 265m (870ft) the lengthened trains became too big for some stations. The formation tends to be, south to north: Carriages K&J First Class, H & G Standard Premium, followed by Standard Class carriages U and F to A. Coach C has a shop for snacks and drinks. K has the kitchen for first-class. Therefore, on our train, are 45 first-class seats, 90 in Standard Premium and 444 in Standard.

With the only difference between Premium and First being the food and a Standard Premium antimacassar over the ‘First Class’ embossed headrest, First and Standard Premium seating is flexible. One suspects the likes of early morning Manchester – Euston trains will be all first-class in J to G. Our carriage (H) was thin: myself and Mrs AWS, the three Americans, an Indian couple, and a chap sat behind me speaking an impenetrable foreign language into his cell phone. Now I come to think of it, might he have been a Scot?

The standard class carriages hold a maximum of 74 seats. The old BR MKIIIs they replaced seated 64 in 8 sets of four on either side of the aisle. All seats lined up with a window and faced each other across a table. Therefore, you’re more jammed in now than in the mid-1970s. The new East Coast Mainline and Great Western trains, Hitatchi’s Azumas, squeeze in 88, albeit in a three meter longer carriage.

The West Coast service is now run by Avanti, in effect Italian State Railways. Much of their awful reputation is due to the unreliable Manchester-London part of the franchise. I use the Anglo-Scottish services from time to time and, although it may be unfashionable to say so, I rather like them. If you have experienced otherwise, address your argument to the striking trade unions. Having said that, as I double-check the prices for this article, I find today’s not-a-strike-day 11:02 is cancelled.

However, the previous franchise holders, Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains were better at it, and, again, although unfashionable to say so, I liked Virgin Trains too. With his airline background, in particular on the hyper-competitive trans-Atlantic route, Branson understood the importance of customer service and first-class. The food was a mile superior, and so was the staff.

As an aside, at about the same time we lost Virgin Trains, we also lost a local MP who fell foul of the Brexit/Remain hullaballoo. He and his dippy wife (another American) used to board my London-bound train at Oxenholme on a Tuesday morning for his short parliamentary working week in Westminster. More often than not, he sat nearby. We found ourselves on nodding terms. In times of heightened security, a dot matrix message above the vestibule doors and an audio announcement instructed that if you see something strange or unusual, you should text the British Transport Police or report to the train staff. At this point, I would make an excuse, leave my seat, collar the senior conductor and report in an important voice, ‘There’s something strange and unusual in coach J – it’s Rory Stewart.’ *Sniggers*

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Edinburgh Waverley arrivals.
© Always Worth Saying 2024, Going Postal

There’s only one thing worse than a late-running train, and that’s one arriving on time, thus denying me the chance of a refund. Having de-trained on Platform 9 at Waverley bang on time, I made the mistake of allowing myself and my wife to be swept along by the crowd. The herd climbed to an upper level. Then, as herds are wont to, they went the wrong way, taking myself and my wife to an unfamiliar set of stairs and initiating us into a new tribe as we spilt into Edinbugh’s interesting Market Street.

To be continued…

© Always Worth Saying 2024