Saturday, 30 March 2019

The London Underground: what it is and how to use it?

This post is about the London Underground, also known as the Tube: a mass transit system in London, and my experiences while using it. I visited the UK between February 25th and March 1st, and thought I should write a post about it, since I've been a long time fan of the network.

A brief history

The first section of the Underground was opened in 1863, between the stations that are today called Paddington and Farringdon. It was operated by the Baker Street & Metropolitan railway, which continued to extend its network in the late 19th and early 20th century, and soon other companies began to build their own lines as well. In 1933, all the competing operators were merged under the London Transport Board, which is the predecessor to the current operator of the Underground: Transport for London.
A Piccadilly Line train at Barons Court. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The first sections of the tube were built by digging up the street above the new line, laying down all the tracks and infrastructure, then covering it back up. This method was known as the 'cut-and-cover' method, and the Metropolitan, Circle, Hammersmith & City and District lines were built using this method. Other lines are known as the 'deep tube' lines, which were built using tunnel boring machines. These tunnels are much smaller, and the trains are as well. The latest addition to the Tube is the Jubilee line extension from Westminster to Stratford, opened in 1999, and the newest station on the Tube is Wood Lane, opened in 2008.

The network

One of the most recognisable features of the network is the map. Unfortunately, due to copyright issues, I cannot post the famous 'Tube map' here. You can find the latest on the website of Transport for London. I will, however, describe as much as I can.

The London Underground has 11 lines, and operates in all boroughs of London, and extends outside of Greater London as well. The service is very frequent in all parts of the network, with even the outer reaches having trains every 5 minutes nearly throughout the day. The Tube shuts down for weeknights, but there's a limited Night Tube service on Friday and Saturday nights on select lines.
A Victoria Line train at Highbury & Islington

The Tube has 270 stations, and the sprawl and fame of the network has led to many enthusiasts want to visit all the stations in as little time as possible. This is known as The Tube Challenge, and requires a person to either enter or exit a station, or be on a train stopping at it, for all 270 stations of the network in as little time as possible. This is record is officially tracked by Guinness World Records, with the current record at 15 hours, 45 minutes and 38 seconds held by Steven Wilson. Can you beat his time?

Fares

The Tube operates a zone-based fare system, with the fare amount depending on how many and which zones you travel through. Single fares can be bought from ticket machines at any station from anywhere to anywhere on the network, and you can find out the cost by using TfL's Single Fare Finder.

There are many ways to pay for your journey, however I recommend visitors to use the Oyster card, which is a stored-value smart card that automatically charges you the cheapest fare for your journey by recording the stations you entered and exited from. There is also a daily fare cap, which varies depending on the zones you travel through - if you hit the cap, all other journeys on that day are free. Visitors who have contactless payment cards (NFC-capable) can also use them to pay for fares, just by tapping them on the same Oyster card readers. TfL adds up all your journeys at the end of each day, and charges for all of them at once. Both of them are also valid on buses and other trains in the London area, including Heathrow and Gatwick Express (although they charge expensive, premium fares).

On board a Norther Line train

For people who wish to not use the Oyster card, paper tickets are also available. Day travelcards from Zones 1 to 4, 6 or 9 can be bought at any ticket machine, or single tickets between two stations. Keep in mind that this is more expensive than using Oyster.

Technical details

The London Underground, being the oldest underground system in the world, has a lot of old infrastructure, but it is being heavily modernised. The sub-surface lines (Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan) lines use new S stock trains, which have walk-through carriages and air conditioning. On the other hand; Northern, Central, Jubilee and Victoria lines have automatic train operation: all the driver does is press operate the doors, and start the automated system. This means that trains can now run faster and more frequently, and TfL runs 40 trains per hour on the Victoria Line in peak hours - a train every 90 seconds.

However, Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines use 1972 and 1973 Stock trains respectively - the oldest trains on any mass transit network in the world. TfL is in the process of acquiring new trains, but they aren't expected to enter service until 2023. These lines are also prone to more failures, as they still use old signalling systems.

My experience

I've been a fan of the London Underground since 2011, and what I really like the most about it is the high frequency - you can get from anywhere to anywhere on the network, without even having to check the schedule. Many passengers don't even know that there is one! What I also like is the Oyster card system - it's simple to use and understand, and is also integrated with other rail operators in London.

However, the Tube isn't perfect. Due to the age of the network, there can be failures, or planned engineering works, especially on weekends. Always check your travel at the TfL website. Also, while Osyter seems simple at first, the exact calculation for a fare is very complicated, and can vary depending on what route you take or which rail operator (or combination of those) you use. 

Still, I recommend all visitors of London to use the Tube, since it's much better than the alternative - driving. And the Tube is very cheap off-peak - you can travel between zones 2 and 6 for only £1.50.






Saturday, 9 March 2019

BritRail Pass: A guide and review

I went on a trip to the UK from February 25th to March 1st. This was my first solo trip to the UK, but 8th overall to the country. This post will be on how I travelled within the UK: on trains, using the BritRail Pass.

 What is a BritRail pass?

The BritRail pass is a multi-use ticket for rail travel in Great Britain for visitors to the UK. BritRail was created and is managed by Rail Delivery Group (more commonly known as National Rail) - the organisation overseeing and coordinating operations of the 23 privately run passenger rail carriers. In addition to the 17 franchised carriers, BritRail is also valid on express trains serving airports around London, but is not valid on the London Underground or any other local light rail service. The BritRail pass also has special offers for museums and other sights across the UK.
My BritRail pass
BritRail passes are available for several areas of the UK, and for different periods - either consecutive or flexible (e.g travelling on 5 days out of 15), and is available both on paper and electronically for smartphones (M-Pass). Full details can be found on the official homepage, and passes can be bought from rail travel agencies, such as ACP Rail, where I purchased mine.

How to use?

The first step to using a BritRail Pass is buying one from a travel agency, such as ACP Rail. BritRail passes are not available in the UK - you must buy one before you travel. I bought a consecutive 4-day paper pass for England only. I also added pass protection, which covers loss and theft of the pass. My total came to €119, including express delivery included with pass protection. I would personally recommend the M-Pass though, as you won't have to pay for delivery or protection, and for other reasons you'll see later.

Once you've arrived in the UK want to start travelling on trains, your paper pass must first be validated. If you have an M-Pass, you don't have to - you have to select the dates of validity during the purchase process. Paper passes must be brought to a staffed ticket office at a National Rail station, where it will be marked with the range of validity and stamped with the start date. Users on flexible passes must also write down their dates of travel in sequential order on the pass.

When your pass is validated, then the next step is to get on a train and enjoy your travels! However, as most stations have ticket barriers which can't read your pass, you must show it to a member of staff to be let through. M-Pass users again won't face this problem, as many barriers are fitted with bar code readers, which can read the pass.

On an 'HST' train towards King's Cross from York. I couldn't have gone there without BritRail.

My experience with the pass

As stated before, I used a BritRail consecutive 4-day pass for England on my travels. My first trip on a train was a Heathrow Express service to London Paddington station, starting at Heathrow. I found out there was no ticket office which could validate my pass at Heathrow, so I had to travel to Paddington first. Fortunately I was told by members of staff that it's OK to use it, as long as I fill in the dates of validity myself.
My one true enemy

Most of my travels went without a hitch. Every ticket barrier however was a minor inconvenience for me though, as I had to get my pass out of my backpack and show it to a member of staff to be let on to the platforms. Fortunately this didn't cause me to miss any trains, but I will be using an M-Pass the next time to avoid this issue.

Guards on the trains seemed to be OK with my pass as well, even though they probably only see them once every few months at best. One guard on a train from York to King's Cross didn't like that I had the dates of validity filled in myself, even though they were written again twice by staff at Paddington in marker. He let me go that time, but warned me that he'd charge for tickets next time. This was fortunately the only encounter like this.

I recommend BritRail for anybody visiting the UK outside of London and thinking of taking the trains. Within London it is mostly not valid, and visitors would get a better value of using the Oyster card, on which there will be a post on in the future. BritRail passes provide a great value for anyone taking long distance trains, as tickets can get rather expensive. For shorter journeys however, it might be best to buy regular tickets from ticket machines. It all depends on your individual travel plans and budget.