Archive for October, 2017

Going down South

October 13, 2017

How many Southern Railway employees does it take to change a light bulb? Seven. Four who were on the last two trains that were cancelled, one to drive the train, one to change the light bulb and one more to sit in the guard’s cabin and repeat their well rehearsed and tiresome attempt at humour at every station.

The contrast between the two ends of this journey that started in Oslo and ended in Portsmouth couldn’t be more pronounced. It was a nice day in Oslo, and so I walked down to the central station to get a train ticket to the airport.

I hurt my leg a couple of weeks back, so I had already got myself a one month, one zone travel pass to get me to and from work. I bought it using the app on my mobile phone. To get from the central station to the airport is four zones and I didn’t want to pay for the first zone again so I went to the help desk for Norwegian National Railways.

“just buy it on your phone, and it will take the existing ticket into account”

was their advice. So I did, and it did. The price of one zone was subtracted from the price and I saved myself 3 quid.

I also needed to buy myself a ticket at the other end to get from Gatwick Airport to Portsmouth. I checked on Google Play and sure enough there was a TrainLine app advertising the ability to plan journeys and buy tickets. It was only after I downloaded, installed and input my payment information that I realised that I could buy the ticket, but I would still have to go to a ticket machine to get the ticket – i.e., I couldn’t have the ticket on the phone. So I could save queuing by buying my ticket with the app … and then queue up with everyone else who was buying their ticket. The only possible benefit I could see is that I might be able to buy a ticket in advance at a lower price but, given the new pricing strategies, unless I want to travel at an odd hour my options are probably quite limited.

The real value of the app came to light after we landed at Gatwick and I was rushing along through the terminal to see if I could make the 20:40. It was going to be close, so I checked the app to see whether the train was running late and I might have a few more minutes to spare.

It wasn’t running late, it was cancelled, and the next train was now at 21:10. I slowed down, ambled through passport control and over to the ticket machine to get a ticket before I wandered back into the terminal for a coffee. Glancing up at the departure board I noticed an announcement for the 20:40 departing from Platform 3. The train wasn’t cancelled, just terminating at Bognor Regis. I had visions of the local tourist board lifting a petrol soaked sofa across the tracks to Chichester before retreating to a safe distance to hurl a lighter in the general direction to kick things off.

I went down to the platform at 21:05 to find it was delayed until 21:14. There was a pseudo cockney announcing departures with a forced jack the lad jollity. Occasionally, they would intersperse his jauntiness with a recorded announcement from an abrupt sounding lady in the CCTV office warning people to stand well back behind the yellow line when the train was approaching the platform. She sounded brusque, the sort of person who takes no nonsense. I expected a headmistress type to come out and start briskly marching down the platform with a metal ruler to start rap any offenders across the knuckles. Although, as I’ve never seen a train manage anything above a sickly crawl when making an entrance, so I’m not sure where the immediate danger lay.

At 21:15 the train trundled in and creaked to a rheumatic halt. I pressed the door button and after about 10s the doors reluctantly parted and I was greeted with a strong smell of stale beer and fast food. It seemed to be coming both from the carpet and the passengers and once I had settled in my seat I began to understand why. Instead of the usual monotone delivery from the train guard greeting new passengers and informing them of the next stop, we had a standup comedienne.

It might have been bearable if the last train hadn’t been cancelled and this one was running on time but when you are fucking around with the customers, cracking jokes is probably not the way to go, perhaps a more contrite tone would be appreciated. And judging from the stolid expressions from the other passengers I wasn’t alone in this line of thought. Maybe they were all going to Bognor Regis. Also, she had a very strong Scottish accent and I was having trouble understanding her.

“there are eight coaches on this wee train, the front four will go to Southampton, the last four will go to Bognor Regis”

“1, 2, 3, 4, you’re a load of dirty whores!”

“5, 6, 7, 8 hell will come to those who wait”

At Three Bridges I put on my noise cancelling headphones and turned on the music. Some of these people had been on the trains since London Victoria and only had a newspaper. Behind me I could hear two blokes talking animatedly after they had discovered (via the TrainLine app) that there was a coach service to Littlehampton. Maybe the guard had slipped that in between her one liners and no had one understood.

It occurred to me that there might be similar problems ahead for me, so I opened up the app one more time. It seemed I had a clear run, aside from the fact the train was appeared to be losing another minute at every station, and when I looked at my watch, they were already another five minutes behind their projected schedule.

At the bottom of the app display I noticed a banner that said “warning: standing room only in the front three carriages. I was at the front of carriage 1. I turned around to see i had three other passengers for company and they all had headphones. Everyone else probably got off at the previous stop for a bit of peace and quiet.

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Standing room only

City Bikes

October 8, 2017

I’ve never used a Boris bike, but I did sit on one once while it was still locked into position at one of the stations. It looked like it might be fun to ride around the city, but I was in a bit of a hurry and wasn’t sufficiently confident of my navigational skills around Central London, nor the location of the docking station nearest to my destination, so I used the underground. I have similarly eyed up the city bikes in Oslo, but when you live there and already own five bikes it seems fairly redundant to sign up for access to any more. So, I was resigned to the fact that there probably wasn’t a city bike anywhere in my immediate future.

And then I went to Heidelberg for a meeting. Heidelberg has a bike program. What made the difference was I was staying in the city centre, while the meeting was being held at a research park some distance outside the city. There was a shuttle bus being laid on to take us to and from the city centre, but if there is one thing I hate, it is being treated like I was back at school. Also, if a session turns out to be intolerably dull, I want to have the option to escape and find something more exciting to pass the time.

So, the bike seemed the obvious option. I downloaded the app, I registered a form of payment and, no sooner had I checked into hotel and dropped off my bag, I was straight back out the door and in search of the nearest bike station. This wasn’t just the overenthusiastic child in me, but a consequence of me taking a later flight to avoid getting up too early and arriving at my hotel one hour before the meeting was due to kick off.

It wasn’t too far to the bike station, but it was on the other side of a large roundabout and at every crossing there was a light. And at every light there was a group of calm and unhurried Germans who patiently waited for the green man to be displayed. As these lights weren’t subject to any kind of coordination, it took me 10 minutes to get to the opposite side and I was down to 50 minutes.

I still wasn’t too concerned, it was only 5km, and even losing an additional 5 minutes trying to figure out how to use the app and work out which bike I had just released from the docking bay I still felt I had time.

But there were two things I hadn’t accounted for. The first was Google Maps. I don’t expect the app to be perfect – I’m still impressed that I can get something like that for free and I can live with getting sent up a dead end street once in a while. However, this time, within 500m, Google sent me into a graveyard. After circling the graves for several minutes I finally figured it was trying to send me up a flight of stairs and out through a gate that was held shut with a heavy duty chain and padlock. I found an alternative exit through another gate at the top of a narrow but shorter flight of stairs at the other side of the graveyard, carefully manoeuvred the bike through the gap and resumed my journey.

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Heidelberg Panzer Cycle

Stairs seemed a key feature of the chosen route. I carried the bike up another short flight that linked a footpath to a small side road, and there was third flight that disappeared out of sight around a distant corner to which I gave the “fuck that” treatment. Undeterred, Google directed me to the next left turn, which appeared to end in someone’s front garden. I finally chose option five which sent me the wrong way up a one way street.

And that was the other problem. It never occurred to me to check the terrain, after all, the centre of Heidelberg is quite flat. But if I’d taken the trouble to investigate, I would have realised that the river on which the city was built is at the bottom of a very steep valley. This really only dawned on me when one way street kicked off with a 10% incline, and it only got worse after that. Moreover, the proclivity of Google to take routes avoiding traffic at all costs meant that when it wasn’t trying to send me up flights of stairs, it was guiding me up footpaths that were even steeper that road that was winding it’s way up the side of the hill. At one point it reached 25% (I took a photo and worked out the incline later). I was passed by a gent on a mountain bike who was zigzagging from side to side to smooth out the incline. It was a valiant effort but he blew up before the top and I crawled back past him after he pulled over to the side of the road with head down on the handlebars.

But Google’s masterstroke was saved for the very end when I was back on the road and was boldly instructed to take a right up into the forest. I stopped to check the map, but there were no other routes in sight. I had two reasons to be suspicious, the first was the path looked more like the route of a river that had dried up over the summer months, the second was the sign saying “no bicycles”. As I pondered over this, the bloke on the 29er came back past albeit at a more reasonable pace and, gradually clicking down through the multitude of gears available slowly disappeared up the trail and around a bend. I decided to give it ago but, as I was already on the lowest of the seven available gears and riding a bike that was designed for city use, I didn’t hold out much hope of success. Sure enough, I managed to get 10m up the trail before spinning out on a large rock in the middle of the former riverbed and pushed the bike up the remaining km until I could see my final destination through a gap in the trees. And the only thing I had to do was to carry the bike up the flight of stairs at the end of the trail.

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Some stairs