15 October 2014

The Myth of the Daytime MOT

If you spend any amount of time on a British motorcycle forum sooner or later someone will ask about a 'daytime MOT' and how you get one.

The answer is simple: there's no such thing.

The MOT is the MOT, and you either have one or you don't.

In the MOT Inspection Manual, which sets out the requirements and reasons for failure, the section on motorcycle lighting allows a motorbike to be presented for test without lights and, if this is the case, the absence of lights will be noted as an advisory point. Assuming everything else is in good order, you will achieve a pass and receive a MOT certificate.

Nothing about the MOT prevents you using the vehicle at certain times, but obviously without lights you cannot ride at night or at other times when you need them. If you re-fit lights to your bike, you can ride at night straightaway: no new MOT is required.

The wording in the manual for the lighting inspection is:
This inspection applies to: all machines, except those which have neither front nor rear position lamps, or have such lamps permanently disconnected, painted over or masked that are 
  •  only used during daylight hours, and 
  •  not used at times of seriously reduced visibility 
 If this situation occurs the machine presenter should be issued with a VT32 (advisory notice) recording the above.
The lights that can be omitted are:
  • Headlight(s)
  • Tail-light(s) 
  • Brake light(s)
  • Reflector
  • Indicators
But if you have a position light (side light or tail-light) then in most cases you must have the others too - there are exceptions.

Before the MOT system was computerised it wasn't unknown for testers to deface (and potentially invalidate) a MOT certificate by writing "Daytime Only" or similar on it, and this might have lead to the belief that is was a different test.

You can check the MOT (and tax) status of your bike on the Gov.UK web site, and I guarantee it won't say anything about the time of day you can use it!

Incidentally, the law requiring the use of vehicle lights during the hours of darkness is Section 25(1)(a) of the The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations, and it's this law you would break if you used an unlit bike at night.

21 September 2014

Caledonian Sleeper

Somethings in life have a certain appeal: a romantic image from a bygone era, and so it is with sleeper trains. We’ve all seen the movies with glamorous people on luxurious trains, and perhaps the odd illicit assignation in a compact cabin.

There are now just three sleeper services in the UK: two to Scotland and one to Penzance. When the need to travel to Scotland at short notice came up, and with the Commonwealth Games in full swing and monopolising (and inflating the price of) hotel rooms, I remembered the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston and wondered what the cost might be: not as much as I expected.

There are two sleeper trains a night from Euston: the Highland Sleeper, to Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William, and the Lowland Sleeper to Glasgow and Edinburgh. I was going to Glasgow, so the Lowland was mine.

There are a number of options available, from first class where you have exclusive use of a cabin to yourself through to the seated-sleeper service where, as the name implies, you have a seat.

If you travel standard class in a cabin, you will be required to share with someone else of the same sex - unless you pay a solo supplement. Or, if you’re travelling with a companion, you can obviously share the cabin. Families are accommodated too, with connecting doors between cabins that can be unlocked by the on-train hosts meaning four people can travel together.

I decided to travel first class, so I had a cabin to myself. Berth 13 (my lucky number) in coach C was to be mine for the journey, and we left on time from Euston.

Before boarding, sleeper passengers are allowed to use the Virgin Trains first class lounge at Euston. According to the information on the web site, a selection of hot and cold (soft) drinks snacks are available, with alcoholic drinks available to purchase. I appreciate that the sleeper is the last train to leave, but the state of the lounge was pretty poor. Dropped food on the floor, sticky tables and lack of anything to nibble - the reason given was that it was the end of the day so they weren’t putting out anything fresh, which is understandable, but the snacks were all pre-packed so that doesn’t make sense as they’d be fine to leave out for the next day.

The lounge is modern in style with some fairly firm sofas in the lounge area, plus a separate area with armchairs and laptop tables or more formal desks and chairs for anyone wanting to work. Sockets were available too for plugging in the laptop or phone, and the wifi was free too.

The train is scheduled to leave at 23.45, but it’s available for boarding from around 23.00 when the lounge closes. They’re long trains, the longest passenger trains in the UK I’m told, so it was a few minutes walk to the right part of the train. It divides en route at Carstairs, so getting on the wrong part of the train could lead to an unexpected surprise come the morning.

I was shown to my cabin by the attendant, who explained how everything worked including where to find the sink, the attendant-call button, how the lights worked and how to adjust the temperature of the air conditioning. There are no keys for the cabin door, but you can lock it when you leave and the attendant will let you back in on your return - and they will know if it’s your cabin or not! She also took my breakfast order, which is included for first class passengers: either a cooked breakfast or continental, with a choice of tea or coffee to be served at the time if your choice - subject to the train’s arrival time of 07.20.

Each cabin has two bunks, the upper one in my cabin was folded away as I was the only person in it. There’s a sink with hot and cold water, a luggage rack for your case and space to hang your clothes. Separate ladies and gents toilets are at the end of each coach.

The cabin was very comfortable if compact. The bed is full-length, but slightly narrower than standard. A cosy duvet and two pillows with crisp white linen are provided, and the bunk itself is comfortably firm. First class passengers get a comprehensive amenity kit with toiletries including a razor and even hand cream. Not only that, but the sign by the sink asks you to take your towel with you in order to help the environment.

Despite the lateness of the hour, I decided to sample the lounge car before turning in for the night. These have the air of a hotel bar, and there are tables with moveable chairs if you want a hot meal, or if just having a drink there are four three-seat banquettes along the sides. 

The atmosphere was very convivial, and there’s a good selection of wines to choose from plus, as you might expect, whisky. The hot food choices are limited, and they are microwave meals. Having eaten earlier I settled for a bottle of wine and a packet of cashew nuts. First class passengers get a £2.50 voucher to spend in the lounge car, so think of it as a drink on the house.

With limited seating, and the restricted space, inevitably you end up chatting with your fellow travellers, which is a very pleasant way to spend an evening and, without realising it, the earliest part of the morning. People were willing to swap seats to allow couples to sit together, or to make room for someone wanting a meal - food is only served at the tables, and after being jolted a few times as we left London I can see why the steward was so insistent: you'd end up wearing it.

Because of the lack of space there’s a priority system in place with first class passengers welcome at any time, standard class passengers can use the lounge if there’s room. Seated passengers can purchase items from a buffet and are not permitted to use the lounge car.

Moving around the train is a bit like being on a small boat in choppy water, and you need to find your sea legs. That said, the sleeping cars rode fairly smoothly apart from the odd suddenly jolt through the night and, whilst I can’t say it was the best night sleep I’ve ever had, I certainly slept and felt refreshed the next morning.

Waking up next morning and performing your ablutions whilst watching the countryside speed-by was perhaps the most gratifying part of the experience; until we made the stop at Motherwell where my window was directly alongside the train dispatcher. Cue a very rapid closing of the blind!

Breakfast arrived slightly early, and trying to receive the tray whilst not really dressed for receiving visitors was a little awkward - although I dare say the attendants will have seen it all before.

I went for the continental option, which included a fresh fruit salad, yogurt, croissant and coffee. When I’d ordered the attendant said I’d made the best choice: apparently the cooked breakfast is an airline-style meal and not so generous.

My only criticism of breakfast is that the hot water supplied for the coffee (sachets of Starbucks instant) is not quite enough for two cups - but a refill is readily available with just a press of the call-bell.

We arrived just a few minutes late in Glasgow and it was a short walk across the station for my connecting train. If you haven’t had breakfast, Glasgow Central has a number of cafés and coffee shops, and it’s right in the city centre too.

I paid £180 for my ticket just a few days before travelling, booking earlier is cheaper, and I would heartily recommend it as a way to travel. 

Cabins can only be booked via the Scotrail web site or their call centre, but seated sleeper places can be booked via any online ticket seller or National Rail station.

It’s currently operated by First Group’s Scotrail franchise, but from April 2015 it will become a separate franchise operated by Serco. Brand new rolling stock is due in 2018 with more accommodation options.

For all the romantic connotations of a sleeper train, there were no murders or jewel thefts, and the people on board were strictly down to earth types. The Caledonian Sleeper might not make a good film, but it does provide a very special and enjoyable way to travel.

25 May 2014

Crossing the Channel: Newhaven - Dieppe

I've been over to France innumerable times, via Dover, Portsmouth and the channel tunnel, but between the two is the lesser known service that runs from Newhaven to Dieppe.

Heading off for a long weekend with friends in Normandy my original plan was to use the Brittany Ferries service from Portsmouth to Ouistram, near Caen, but bike racing at Le Mans meant there was a lot of demand and no bike places left. I could have taken the car, but that would have been more expensive, and certainly not my preferred mode of holiday transport.

Previously the service has been operated by Sealink and Hoverspeed, and now is advertised as a DFDS Seaways service. That said, it appears to be suffering something of an identity crisis with the web site being LD Lines, the ship's livery Transmanche Ferries, and the signage and uniforms on board a mixture of all three.

Newhaven Harbour

Newhaven's location, roughly a third of the way between Portsmouth and Dover, is slightly awkward to get to, and from home takes me slightly longer to get there than either of the other two (3h00 for Newhaven versus 2h30 for both Portsmouth and Dover). One consolation is that the approach road from the A27 is not a bad road for a ride; but not late at night, in the dark.

The DFDS service is the only ferry operating from port, and after queuing for check-in, I was directed straight on to the boat. This made a pleasant change from being subjected to various security searches at both Portsmouth and Dover whenever I'm on the bike - but strangely never when I'm in the car. Consequently I didn't have time to explore the facilities on offer at Newhaven, although I don't recall seeing anything for vehicle passengers (or cyclists - a "cyclists forbidden" sign was prominently displayed on the terminal building) once through check-in.

Boarding the ferry, the Côte D’Albatre, I was directed to the motorbike area where the bike was strapped down for me by a deckhand. Climbing up innumerable flights of steps to the passenger accommodation I was greeted with a large bar area spread over two levels, a small self-service restaurant, and several lounges with reclining seats - more about those later. The lateness of the hour, I was on the 23.00 departure, meant few people were using either the restaurant or the bar, but I had a very acceptable ham and cheese baguette and a couple of drinks with my friends who were also travelling on that crossing.

An inviting set of steps to what looked like a full restaurant on an upper deck were roped off with no menu on display or mention of it elsewhere.


With a crossing time of only four hours I didn't think the expense of a cabin was worth it for the couple of hours I would be able to use it, so I opted for a reclining seat in one of the lounges. The seat was comfortable enough, but didn't recline all that far, and the lighting in the lounge wasn't dimmed for the night. I must commend the crew on their desire to maintain the cleanliness of the ship as they were vacuuming well in to the wee small hours: the sound being conveyed through the ventilation system from wherever it was they were actually cleaning.

An hour before arrival, I gave up on the idea of sleep and wondered about some breakfast. I got to the self-service restaurant just as they were opening up, with coffee and a pastry the order of the day. Quite reasonably priced too, with a decent coffee and freshly baked pain au raisin costing less than a typical UK coffee shop.

Dieppe in the early morning darkness

We docked slightly late, but it wasn't long before we were invited to return to our vehicles. It took a bit of determined creeping on the bike to get a space amongst the lorries to disembark, but with so few private vehicles on board I was through French immigration very quickly and heading west.

Like Newhaven, Dieppe is not on the main road network and some navigation is required to reach the Autoroute. Despite being the early hours, there was a fair bit of traffic on the road - most of it probably off the same ferry as I was!

Return Journey

A more civilised time for the return crossing was 07.30, but this still meant I was on the road at 03.30 to get there in time. I'd left plenty of time for the journey, and there was no queue for check-in this time when I arrived at 06.00. I ended up at the front of the queue, and was treated to a lovely sunrise. The only facilities I could find were some distance from the boarding lanes, back beside check-in, and even those were just (clean and well maintained) toilets.

Boarding commenced at 06.30, but the motorbikes were almost last to board as the allocated space for them is at the back of the boat (the boat berths stern-in at Dieppe; bow-in at Newhaven). If it had been cold or wet, it would not have been a pleasent experience as there is no shelter provided.

Tucking the bike in to place took a bit of shuffling, and on a wet vehicle deck there wasn't a lot of grip available. I was paddling backwards, but clearly not quickly enough for the deckhand who tried 'help' by pushing the bike with me astride it. A lack of grip meant that I nearly lost my footing and would have fallen over and dropped the bike. Fortunately it didn't happen, but a little patience on the part of the deck crew would have been appreciated - especially as I then had to stand there for several minutes while a strap was found to secure the bike.

Upstairs, once again the boat was fairly quiet with plenty of room in the bar area. Given the time of day, it seemed plenty of people were looking for breakfast and the café was busy with a long queue that just didn't move.

It appears the self-service restaurant is something of an after-thought, and the serving area is crammed in behind glass screens leaving little spare room to manoeuvre. Even the layout of the food within it is not particularly logical: having selected your full-English breakfast and deciding you would like a slice of toast, you discover that you should have picked up a slice of bread (plus your cutlery) as you entered instead of waiting until you get to the toaster. And given the limited space, you make a nuisance of yourself trying to squeeze past other customers to get your bread.

The breakfast selection was fairly limited, which is why I'm not sure as to the reason it took so long to get served. I assumed they must be cooking each breakfast to order, but no, the bacon, sausages, eggs etc. were all laid out on the hot counter. It took over twenty minutes to work my through and buy a cup of coffee and a pastry.

As on the outward crossing, what I assume to be the main restaurant remained closed.

After a snooze in the reclining seats, I adjourned to the bar for a mid-morning snack. The bar was doing a steady trade, but the adjacent shop remained closed for almost the entire crossing. The display cases around the shop looked a little forlorn with a few products displayed without any real attempt at window-dressing or promotion. The selection in the shop was adequate with the usual alcohol and tobacco available plus toys and travel accessories, although the prices did not seem all that attractive compared to the UK high street.

We were blessed with another smooth crossing and a warm day, so the ample outside deck space was appreciated with plenty of space to sit on the chairs, or lean on the railings watching the world go by. The crew obviously take a degree of pride in the appearance of the ship as the decks on one side were being enthusiastically hosed-down, and on the other side a generous coat of white paint was being applied to a wall. Inside, the barman was polishing the floor between serving customers.

After an uneventful crossing we made our way, very carefully, in to Newhaven. In the darkness on the outward trip I hadn't appreciated just how tight the harbour is, but we were stirring up the sand as we crept up the channel to the berth.

With the bike parked at the back of the car deck, it took a while before we were able to disembark but UK immigration was quick enough and it wasn't long before we were joining the traffic jam to leave the port (there's a complicated series of mini-roundabouts, multi-lane junctions and a level crossing to contend with immediately outside).


Overall I was impressed with the service: The boat was clean, comfortable and the food was good.

What was less impressive was the slightly dismissive attitude of the crew: not rude, but lacking in any spark or enthusiasm and giving 'just enough'.

I'm also a little concerned that the public address system was exceptionally poor. I could hear announcements being made, but they were so unclear as to be impossible to understand in either French or English. I didn't hear a safety announcement on departure from either port, nor any announcements regarding the shop or returning to the car deck at the end of the crossing; in the latter case I loitered near the stairs until the crew member stationed there unclipped the tape across them.

Were there to have been an emergency on board then I suspect things could have got very difficult for both passengers and crew.

Would I use the service again? Yes, I would - but at a more favourable departure time than the overnight, and I would stay closer to the port for the early morning departure.

Ratings for the Côte D’Albatre
Value: 5/5
Service: 3/5
Food: 4/5
Facilities: 3/5

23 April 2014


Sometimes something happens and you need a window in your car replacing. Most insurers have a glass replacement service as part of their policy and many stipulate the glazier you must use - which can be the only reason Autoglass is so successful.

They're perhaps the best known supplier of windscreens and body glass, yet their service is truly shocking. I have had the misfortune to use their services on several occasions over the years and every one of them has been a disaster. I accept that everyone has a bad day from time to time, but Autoglass has a 100% failure rate.

My first experience was in February 1998, in Bracknell. My VW Golf had picked up a stone chip which I wanted fixing. Their depot wasn't far from my office, so I dropped the car off and left them to it. That evening I went back and found that the chip hadn't been repaired because when they'd attempted it the chip had started to spread - fair enough.

Next morning I came out of the house to find the screen had cracked half-way across so I went back to Autoglass where I was informed that this can happen if a chip repair causes it to spread, and that'd I'd have been told this before they started the repair. I hadn't been told that, because if I'd known that I'd have left the chip for another time as I couldn't afford a new screen straightaway.

After some negotiation they agreed to waive the excess, and fit a new screen for me. Irritating, but not the end of the world. A few days later the car was written off when someone jumped the lights and rolled the car over.

Some time later, my parents' car, a VW Polo, was broken into in a station car park near Letchworth. Like mine, their insurance insisted they use Autoglass. Unfortunately the fitter who replaced the window neglected to replace the waterproof membrane inside the door, so as soon as it rained the water got in soaking the carpets. After some negotiation, and two attempts, the membrane was replaced and the problem solved by taking the car to the depot and a more senior member of staff carrying out the work.

In 2001 I bought a SEAT Cordoba, and a few months later, a couple of days before its first MOT with me, I picked up a stone chip that promptly cracked halfway across the screen. I phoned Autoglass and they sent a fitter to my house near Cambridge. As soon as he arrived he told me he'd brought the wrong screen (apparently there were four possible screens for my car: tinted and untinted, each with one of two rear view mirror mounting options).

He suggested that I take the car to the depot where they had the screen in stock, which I duly did. On getting the car back, it was full of glass slivers and discarded sealant from when the old screen was removed. I would have expected to get my car back with the debris from the replacement cleaned up - particularly the fragments of glass. Within a couple of days it also became apparent that the trim around the windscreen had not been refitted correctly: one bit rattled thanks to a broken clip, another made a bid for freedom having not been secured properly.

A return visit to the depot got the trim refitted, but I'm sure it would have been possible to get it right first time. Or even second time, as the trim came off again shortly afterwards.

After moving to Gloucestershire the following year, my colleague needed a new windscreen in his company Ford Focus. Autoglass were the company's appointed contractor, so they set about replacing the heated screen. Just as they were finishing I happened to be in the car park as my colleague picked up something from the passenger seat and asked if it was important. Apparently it was the connector for the heating elements, which should have been attached to the new screen before it was installed - and no, it couldn't be fitted now as the screen would need to come out again.

It's a worry that a supposedly qualified fitter can miss something he himself had disconnected. My colleague had to make another appointment to have another replacement screen fitted - bonded windscreens cannot be removed without damage.

My next contact with Autoglass was with the Ford Transit of a voluntary group I work with. I'd spotted a chip in the windscreen, so called Autoglass to site to repair it. I wasn't expecting them to be successful, and I wasn't disappointed. On the phone I'd been told that if it wasn't possible to repair the screen it would need to be replaced, and I'd already agreed to that. What I wasn't expecting was the fitter to turn up in a Ford Fiesta.

He took one look at the chip and explained that as it had already been 'repaired', he couldn't fix it again and that the screen would need replacing. I assume the original repair which had failed had also been carried out by Autoglass. Having already been warned that this might be the case, I told him to carry on and replace it - only he coudn't. He didn't have a screen with him as it wouldn't fit in his Fiesta... I was amazed that they'd come to a job without the required parts, but on reflection I shouldn't have been given their previous track record.

Whenever possible I use a different glazier because the incompetence of Autoglass doesn't seem to be confined to a particular depot or fitter given that every contact I have had has been substandard in Letchworth, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Letchworth and Aldershot, and over a number of years.

Whilst living in Gloucester I had a window in my SEAT broken overnight. I called Auto Windscreens, whose depot was nearest to me, and dropped off the car that morning. It was replaced promptly, efficiently and correctly first time, and the car has returned to me clean and tidy. So it can be done. Perhaps Autoglass could take lessons?

08 April 2014

Helmets - Revisited

After much deliberation and trying-on, I've replaced my Arai Astro-R with another Arai. It's a different model (Rebel), a different colour and a different shape; which is apparently better suited to upright bikes.
The old and new.
I've swapped the Autocom headset in to the new one, so I just need to fit the Pinlock anti-fog insert and we'll be good to go.

That's my road helmet taken care of: what I replace the Tour-X with remains to be seen.