10 December 2015

The Key to Inconvenience - Revisited

After a month of using GTR’s ‘The Key’ I thought I would update on my experience of using it:

  • The problem with the ticket gates and the direction they are set (and the need to touch-in and out) did not change.
  • Even when the ticket was approaching expiry there is no warning message on the ticket gate display as there is with TfL’s Oyster card. However, touching the card on one of the elusive dual-purpose validators does show the expiry date.
  • Almost unbelievably, the ticket office at St Neots station does not have any way of reading the cards so cannot advise on a ticket’s expiry date. Presumably this means cards and card-based tickets cannot be issued there either, and as a ticket office is the obvious place to buy a ticket I cannot begin to imagine the rationale for not providing ticket offices with the necessary equipment.
  • Not all of GTR’s revenue protection staff have readers for the cards: on two occasions the ticket inspector has looked at the card, shrugged and said he did not have a card reader with him.
  • There is a link in the ‘My Account’ section of the GTR web site for you to view your journey history, but on checking it now my ticket has expired no information is visible.
  • The Key does not work the ticket gates when travelling between KGX and Moorgate via London Underground: paper tickets do, and it is a valid route.
  • GTR's web site appears to have corrupted some of the data in 'My Account', but there's no edit function for me to correct it.

How could the system be improved?

The most obvious improvement would be to remove the obligation to touch-in and out and bring the smart card in line with the paper tickets, or install touch-in and out validators in more convenient locations on the natural route a passenger takes through the station e.g. at the end of the platforms at KGX or the top the stairs at St Neots so passengers don’t need to make detours to find a suitably arranged gate.

Also, as the expiry date is not printed on the card, having a warning displayed on the ticket gate when the ticket is nearing expiry would be useful and prevent the awkwardness of trying to get through the gate with an expired ticket – something the ticket gate does display, but by then it is a bit late.

The impression I get is that the system has been brought in without being properly thought through. It seems that corners have been cut, and what could be a great system for customers is a messy compromise that expects customers to change their habits for the convenience of the company, whilst claiming it is the other way around.

For now I am going to stick with ye olde paper tickets. Sorry.

19 November 2015

Kings Cross Station: Making Commuters Very Cross

Kings Cross station in London is one of the rail network’s main termini and home to services between the English and Scottish capitals via the East Coast Main Line. In the early seventies a temporary building was erected in front of the original 1852 Grade-I listed train sheds, and around forty years later they were not really fit for purpose any more so it was announced that the station was to be redeveloped.

I am normally a bit sceptical of surveys, and the one carried out before the renovation showed an overwhelming majority of commuters didn’t want the station to be rebuilt – but I assumed what they were really saying is that they didn’t want the years of inevitable disruption. I was wrong.

One of the key parts of the redevelopment was to expose the original train sheds and open up the area in front of the station. This has been a success, but it has meant that the station concourse has been moved from the front to the side of the station, and this has had an unfortunate effect of making the station particularly awkward to use when catching a train.

If you are arriving at Kings Cross (KGX) by bus, taxi or via the Underground, in most cases you will find yourself in Kings Cross Square, in front of the imposing train sheds, close to the main platforms. Friendly signs say “No Entry”, because it’s exit-only.

Welcome to Kings Cross, but don't come in

Following the arrows around the back of the entrance to Kings Cross St Pancras (KXSP) Underground station brings you in to a new, modern and impressive-looking concourse. But perhaps the most striking feature, other that the roof which really is impressive, is the lack of visible departure boards or clocks. The access to the platforms is immediately on your right, but to view the boards, which are above your head and pointing away from you, you need to venture further in to the station, only to then retrace your steps to the platforms, which obviously means a lot of congestion.

Impressive roof, not so impressive passenger information

There are only a small number of gates from the concourse to the platforms as the side-on layout of the station means that you need to cross (figuratively, not literally) a number of tracks to reach your train. Passing through the barriers, the platform indicators, which confirm the destination and calling points, are arranged at right-angles so they are not visible. In fact they face the exit barriers, so people leaving the station can easily see, with a backward glance, where their train is off to next.

Side view of a platform indicator from the gate line

Regular travellers who know that their train will be going from platforms 0-8 tend to pass through the barriers and wait on what’s left of the old concourse, which is closer to the trains and avoids the crush of hundreds of people trying to get through the handful of entry gates when their train is called.

KXSP Underground station was redeveloped at the same time as KGX, but it seems that the respective architects were not on speaking terms as the entrances of each respective station do not line-up. As I said before, you walk out of the Underground to be confronted with the exit of KGX: No Entry!

There are two escalator links between the two stations: one is hidden behind the retail units in KGX and the other is a single escalator outside the Little Waitrose on the main concourse that is sometimes set to up, sometimes down, and sometimes just closed altogether – but unless you’re arriving in to the suburban platforms 9-11 you are not inside the station anyway, so need to use the stairs on Kings Cross Square instead. If you’re arriving, unless you happen to emerge from the Tube via the western ticket hall, the escalators are some distance away from the Tube’s other gate lines, and you’ll have walked the full-length of the station to get to them only to be carried back to more or less where you came from but ten foot higher, so most people use the stairs in Kings Cross Square and arrive at those welcoming “No Entry” signs. Incidentally, there is a summary departure board at the bottom of the KXSP stairs, but it isn't always in use.

The only departure board having a rest

I should add that there is a bridge across the main platforms which is accessible from a mezzanine level within in the main station concourse, but that’s where the main caf├ęs are so it gets very congested and there isn’t much room up there to wait – although you do get a good view of the departure boards. And, of course, the escalators to get there are hidden amongst the stationery, chocolate and clothes shops, and don’t line-up with any of the entrances to the station.

Shortly before the new station opened a map was circulated by the then incumbent inter-city train operator National Express. It described passengers “strolling to their train” across the bridge which sounded serious alarm bells: commuters don’t stroll anywhere – they just want to get to their train, get on it and go home.

I think it’s safe to say that whoever designed the station doesn’t commute by train and, whilst the new concourse does look good, the new station has been built in the wrong place. They did get some things right in the seventies after all.

18 November 2015

The Key to Inconvenience

Many of you will be familiar with London's Oyster contactless ticketing system that lets you 'pay-as-you-go', or use a season ticket on the capital's transport network, with little effort on the part of the user - just wave the card over the reader at the ticket gate, or on the bus, and off you go.

In an attempt to follow this convenience, Govia, the operator of Great Northern, Thameslink, Southern and Gatwick Express services (GTR), has introduced its own version for use on its services: The Key. It's advertised as a more convenient way of travelling, although having used the system for a few weeks the convenience seems to be more for the operator than for the passenger.

It's currently only available for point-to-point season tickets, yet you are still required to touch-in and out at each end of your journey. This is fine in concept, but there are some difficulties in doing this when the gate-line barriers are not in use.
With a paper ticket, if the gates are pinned open it doesn't matter if they are set for entry or exit as you can just walk through: no action is required. With The Key, you still need to touch in or out even if the gates are pinned open, but if there's a red 'X' showing on the gate it’s set for the opposite direction and you cannot use it.

At some stations, such as my local station in St Neots, the ticket gates are not used all that often and are mostly left open. If they are all set in the same direction then you can't record your journey's start or finish. And although you have a valid point-to-point ticket the terms and conditions threaten a penalty fare for not touching in or out.

Even when there is a correctly set gate available, if you are arriving on a busy train and amidst a throng of people, you often need to fight your way across the flow of people at the gate-line to use it.

It was pointed out to me by a member of station staff that there is a separate reader at St Neots that will allow you to either touch-in or out, but it isn't in an obvious place and isn't signed. The reader is only visible if arriving on platforms three or four from Huntingdon; it isn't visible if you're arriving on platforms one or two (trains from London), or if you're walking to any of the platforms from the booking hall.

Gates at St Neots all set to exit only

At Kings Cross, a station that is very poorly laid out for passengers intending to catch a train, most of the ticket barriers are permanently set to exit only, and as they are located where people arrive by bus, Tube or taxi you cannot walk straight to your train through the open barriers but must search for an entry gate in order to avoid the threatened penalty fare and benefit from the 'convenience' of your contactless ticket.

Fair enough, the smartcard won't wear out in the same way as a paper ticket, and if you happen to lose it the company will cancel it and issue you a new one (subject to paying a fee), but as for most people neither of these events are regular occurrences the benefits of the new system are somewhat difficult to fathom. It is also harder to know when your ticket will expire as the date doesn't appear on the ticket gate displays, so you either need to remember it or log-in to the GTR web site to check to avoid being inadvertently stranded at the ticket gate.

It's also worth noting that if you also use an Oyster card you cannot keep the two cards in the same wallet as presenting both to the reader at the barrier may result in the wrong one for your journey being read.

So whilst the concept of having your season ticket on a smartcard is great, the execution of it by Govia is poor. When the ticket gates are not in use care needs to be taken to locate a suitable point to either touch-in or out, which may not be on the route to the platforms, or if the gates are all set the same way, might not be possible at all. And if you make a mistake, the company can charge you a penalty despite having a valid (and expensive) ticket for your journey. Sounds like they've found the key to inconvenience.

I will be reverting to a traditional paper ticket at the next opportunity as it’s a lot more convenient.

10 November 2015

Lost in Tesco: 1 Carrot

So now we have the shopping tax, where if you want to carry your purchases home, no matter how expensive or fragile they are, you are obliged to give the retailer an extra five pence per bag.

I understand the rationale behind it: some people are extraordinarily profligate with their use of bags, and wastefulness is not something that should be encouraged.

However, whilst the concept works in places like supermarkets where most people arrive by car, buy multiple items that require bags but can easily bring multiple empty bags with them, it doesn't work so well elsewhere.

Where do you carry an empty bag? In your pocket? With your phone, wallet and house keys? Well yes, if there's room (is that an environmentally-friendly reusable bag in your pocket or shall we do a very old joke?), but personally I don't have room in my pockets for multiple bags on the off chance that I might decide to buy something - and certainly not thick plastic or fabric reusable ones.

For people bemoaning the death of the high street, introducing an extra charge is not going to encourage people to make impulse purchases. On several occasions after Marks & Spencer started charging for carrier bags I almost shopped there a few times, even getting to the till, before remembering that I'd have to pay extra if I wanted to take my shopping home (much like Ryanair's extra charges if you want to actually travel on one of its planes despite holding a ticket) so left without buying anything. I stopped shopping there and either went elsewhere, or waited until I was going somewhere in the car and could use my reusable bags.

Online shopping is going to benefit hugely from this as packaging for delivery by post is exempt, although it's worth noting that the supermarkets are cashing in on the extra charge by insisting on using (and charging for) bags for your online home-delivery shopping. I guess the attraction of being able to charge an extra five pence per bag is too much for them to resist, and they'll go down the one-item-per-bag route to maximise their income from it as you have no control over how many bags they charge you for.

And yes, I know the proceeds of the shopping tax are supposed to go to good causes, whatever they might be, but retailers are allowed to deduct reasonable expenses from the income received.

The other absurdity is when purchasing high-value items. Remember it's not just your weekly grocery shop that's affected. Your new £620 mobile phone is now £620.05. Yes, it's a mere drop in the ocean in terms of the overall price, but it seems unbelievably churlish to add that five pence.

Or clothes shopping: that expensive new suit or dress, jeans, T-shirts or items of 'intimate apparel' as our US friends coyly refer to them as, will all cost an extra five pence if you want a bag to carry them home in. Online shopping (with a mandatory 14-day returns period and often free delivery) is your friend as wrappings for postage are exempt from the charge.

Now don't get me wrong: I abhor wastefulness and, whilst I don't consider myself to be particularly 'green', think that reducing,  reusing and recycling where possible is eminently sensible. My recycling bin is usually full each fortnight whereas my non-recycling bin must feel somewhat deprived. My lights are mostly LED, and get turned off when I'm not in the room, and for local journeys I tend to walk instead of using the car.

Something which has gone mostly unreported is that where retailers used to offer a carrot to encourage you to bring your own bag, for example Tesco offered 'green' Clubcard points, these have been withdrawn and now we are being 'encouraged' with a stick. The beatings will continue until morale improves.

The question is, will a 5p per bag charge stop the thoughtless from fly tipping rubbish in the countryside? Probably not. Will 5p per bag change the world? Certainly not. Does the 5p per bag make it look like the government is 'doing something' about something? Unfortunately, yes.

20 October 2015

Crossing the Channel: Portsmouth to Ouistreham (Caen)

I'm a regular visitor to Normandy in northern France, and my usual route is with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen - but as Caen is inland, the port is actually in nearby Ouistreham. Last year I used the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe as there wasn't any space on the Portsmouth ferry, but this year I was pleased to be back travelling with Brittany Ferries. It's a long crossing at around seven hours, which overnight means you have time to have a decent sleep.

Outward Journey - Armorique

Portsmouth is a busy port, but it's an easy one to get to with the M275 passing its gates. From home it's a 2h30 journey (M25 permitting), the same as to Dover, and the port has recently been refurbished - although I didn't have time to explore the facilities.

It was busy on arrival, with ferries to the Channel Islands and Le Havre also leaving in the late evening, but the signage is clear, and the check-in process straight forward (not withstanding being behind a car with multiple cats in transit, all requiring their pet passports and ID chips to be checked!).

For some reason, on every previous trip on the bike I've been pulled in to the security search area before boarding while cars, white vans and the like have been waved straight through. I've never really understood why, as you're very limited in what you can carry on a bike, but this year I was waved straight through. Bicycles and motorcycles are considered to be the same, so I rode slowly through the port in a cloud of cycles (I've always wanted to marshal a cycle race - next time I'll take a pillion with a TV camera to sit backwards and film them).

The usual ferries on this route are Mont St Michel and Normandie, but the Mont was away and Armourique was deputising. I've never been on Armourique so was looking forward to the experience.

With the bike secured by the stevedores I ventured upstairs. Signage is somewhat sparse on-board, and I wasn't entirely sure where my cabin was or which deck I was on, and how to get there as the 'feature' staircases didn't join up with each other - after asking for directions I ended up taking the lift, which just seemed wrong.

Having left my bike kit in the cabin I needed a meal so went to sample the self-service restaurant. It's enormous. Rows and rows of tables and chairs, with three people sitting at distant intervals as if after some disagreement - but I think it was just a small number of customers in a very large space. The servery was similarly spacious with a selection of hot meals available, as well as cold options, wine, soft drinks, desserts and the like. I opted for the entrecote steak, cooked to order (moyen), avec frites, with mousse au chocolat to finish.

The mousse looked home-made and was served in a ceramic ramekin, but closer inspection revealed it was in a plastic pot sat inside the ramekin to look home-made... You almost had me fooled Brittany Ferries!

Our scheduled departure time was 22.45 but it was after 23.00 when we finally slipped our moorings, and I'd finished my meal in time to watch the departure from out on deck (unlike some ferries, there is plenty of room outside) before heading to the bar for a nightcap.

Like the self-service restaurant, the bar on Armourique is big. It also lacks the character of some of the other ferries, particularly Mont St Michel's bar, but it was busy. I decided not to have a drink after all, and turned in for the night.

I'd booked a two-berth inside cabin, and it was unusually spacious with the bunks arranged across the cabin and the overall size being almost double that of most typical ferry cabins. It was, of course, en-suite with shower, basin and toilet but there was a very unpleasant odour coming from somewhere that brought to mind seaside sewage. The bunk itself was comfortable, and I slept reasonably well waking shortly before the wake-up call over the tannoy. Unfortunately my cabin had a rattley door lock, and at certain engine revs it was very audible - think of tea cups and teaspoons rattling on saucers - but fortunately this only seemed to happen when the ship was manoeuvring so it didn't really matter.

The ship was due in at 07.45 local time, and with the hour time difference this makes for a very early start as they wake you up with a perky piece of folk music an hour before arrival. With just a short run along the coast to Arromanches I decided to just have a cup of coffee and a pain au chocolat for breakfast in the bar.

We arrived on time, and it wasn't long before we were called to the car deck to disembark. Immigration at the port was relatively quick, but unlike Portsmouth it isn't on the motorway network so it was a slowish crawl through the town before heading west to Arromanches.

Return Journey - Normandie

For the return journey I was booked on the 08.30 crossing on Normandie. Again the check-in process was uneventful, and I was gratified to find that the port authorities have installed a shelter on the quayside for motorbikes to queue inside so they are out of the weather - other ports could learn from that: thank you Port du Ouistreham!

It was a busy crossing, with a lot of bikes booked on board, and we were parked tightly together to the point where bikes were leaning against each other, which isn't good. Knowing how the bikes are normally secured on the boat, I positioned the bike so it was central to the lashing points on the deck, contrary to the directions of the stevedore, but was proved right when I'd dismounted and it was in just the right place to be strapped down.

I'm a little sensitive as to how the bikes are secured after an unfortunate experience on my first trip to Normandy, as it happens, on board Normandie. In those days they used lengths of rope to secure the bikes, and when we arrived they missed removing one of the bits holding my bike to the deck (it was below my pannier, and out of sight) so when I rode off I had the ignominy of crashing on the car deck - something that gained me the nickname 'Tug' for the rest of the trip as I tried to tow the ferry...

The current method of securing bikes is with a heavy-duty ratchet strap and big blue cushion, run over the seat to lashing rings on the deck. It's done for you; you just need to make sure the straps aren't across any bodywork and that they don't over-tighten the strap - the landlord of the B&B we stayed at has seen a number of bent and broken side stands as a result of over enthusiastic tightening of the ratchet straps.

Despite Normandie being one of the regular vessels on the route, it isn't one I have travelled on all that often. I was travelling with friends this time, and shared a day cabin which had both a temperamental door lock and an intermittent toilet flush, but at least it had a more pleasant smell.

The ambience in the public areas is a little more cosy than on Armorique, although I only used the bar on board for a cup of coffee and a croque monsieur - both of which were good.

For some reason there is a 3D printer in the main reception area that prints plastic key rings as souvenirs which are sold in the on-board shop: either the company's bear mascot or a ferry (Bretagne, I'm told).

Our arrival back in Portsmouth was about half an hour late owing to congestion in the port, but the cruise up the Solent is quite pleasant, even in the drizzly rain, and on an all-day journey half an hour doesn't really matter.

We were off the boat promptly, and although the UK board controls are somewhat time-consuming it wasn't too bad and from the port it's straight on to the M275 for the journey home - sadly through increasingly heavy rain.

For a long crossing the cost of the ferry and cabin is quite reasonable, and Brittany Ferries do seem to make an effort with generally good facilities and, as you might expect from a French company, good food. Some of the other operators, notably P&O whose food provision on their Hull to Rotterdam crossing is very poor, could learn a thing or two from them.

Ratings for Armorique and Normandie:
Value: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Food: 4/5
Facilities: 4/5

Since publishing this review, I've had an update on the Chocolate Mousse situation from Brittany Ferries via Twitter:

So it seems they are 'home-made' after all.

17 June 2015

Crossing the North Sea: Hull to Rotterdam

Ferries have been running across the North Sea for many years, and living in the southern part of the country they would not normally be my first choice as a means to get to Europe. But on this trip I was meeting up with friends from Lancashire for a trip to Germany, so the crossing from Hull to Rotterdam seemed to fit the bill.

It is a lengthy crossing, taking around twelve hours, but the timings are favourable with evening departures and a not-too-early arrival at the other end. The route is operated by the sister ships Pride of Hull and Pride of Rotterdam, which are two of the largest ferries serving the UK and resemble floating hotels more than typical ferries.

Hull ferry terminal is on the banks of the Humber, not far from the eponymous bridge - which is toll-free for motorcycles. Road access is straightforward, and ferries go from there to both Rotterdam and Zebrugge.

Outward Crossing

The outward ferry was the Dutch-crewed Pride of Rotterdam, and boarding commences early so there was little waiting on the quayside. I caused some minor disruption, and obvious irritation, to the lady at check-in as I did not have my booking reference number to hand. For some reason they are unable to locate a booking any other way, despite having my full name and registration number on the booking. That was me told.

I was travelling by motorbike, and was directed towards the upper car deck via a fairly steep, curved ramp. There were a lot of bikes on the crossing, and once on board I was disconcerted to discover that riders are expected to secure their own bikes instead of the more usual arrangement where a member of the ship's company does it.

I was directed to use a tie-down eyelet directly below by bike, which was in the wrong place and, as far as securing the bike against a rough crossing is concerned, served no useful purpose. So, making the best if it, I used a different tie-down point, much to the displeasure of the deckhand who pointed out that the strap was now across where people had to walk. Tough. And on the subject of straps, the single strap provided had a friction-buckle instead of a ratchet, which made getting sufficient tension on the strap to hold the bike nigh on impossible.

Once upstairs in the passenger accommodation I began the game of hunt-the-cabin. I had been given my cabin key-card at check-in, but not told what my cabin number was: for obvious reasons it is not printed on the key-card. The customer service desk put me right by pointing out that it is printed on the boarding card, although with a lot of other information. I suspect that was my penance for upsetting the check-in process earlier.

Signage around the ship could be better, and not all the cabins are signposted - including, perhaps inevitably, mine. Eventually having walked most of Deck 10 there was one remaining row of cabins, and there was mine.

The cabins are compact, and my two-berth had its bunks folded up against the wall. With a bit of experimentation we got both bunks down and secured, and freshened-up in the compact en-suite shower. There is not a huge amount of room, but they are adequate for a one-night stay and the bunks themselves are comfortable.

I knew that we were meeting up in the Sky Lounge on Deck 12, but the challenge was getting there. The layout of the ship is confusing, and not particularly well signed. Having wandered up and down many flights of stairs, none of which seemed to go to Deck 12, we eventually found a lift that did. And it was worth the effort. The lounge bar was bright and spacious with a good selection of drinks on offer, but no food. Later in the evening a pianist provided some musical accompaniment.

The on-board catering was sorely disappointing. There was a long queue for the mysterious "Kitchen", which had an ambitious fixed-price admission charge but with scant information on what was available within apart from vague "tastes of the world" allusions to curry and lasagne. None of us felt inclined to risk it, and whilst The Brasserie did have a menu on display it was clearly aiming for the upper end of the market.

That left the coffee shop, which had a selection of sandwiches, some sorry-looking pies and made-to-order pizzas. The best of a poor choice was the pizza, which was adequate, but for some reason the food discount voucher issued during the booking process was not accepted there. There is undoubtedly scope for a self-service cafeteria on board, and next time I will remember to bring my own packed-lunch.

On the same deck as the coffee shop there is the main bar with entertainments. The singers and dancers had plenty of energy, and had an esoteric repertoire of songs. What was lacking in polish was certainly made up for in enthusiasm.

The two cinemas showed various films throughout the voyage, and for those fancying a flutter there was a small casino with a couple of tables and some slot-machines.

It was a smooth crossing, but despite a comfortable cabin I did not manage a particularly good night's sleep. Two hours before arrival in Rotterdam we were awoken by an announcement, and that allowed plenty of time to get up, washed, dressed and join the huge, slow-moving queue in the coffee shop for a coffee and a pastry.

Once we arrived in Rotterdam we were asked to return to the vehicle deck, and again the lack of signage meant that we ended up at the wrong end of it. Thankfully the bikes were still upright, and before too long we were heading out through Passport control and on to the Dutch motorway network.

Return Crossing

The return journey was on the other ship, the British-crewed Pride of Hull, and the facilities were virtually identical. The arrangements for securing the bike were worse than on the outward crossing, with me being expected to secure the bike to steel hawser threaded along the deck. As it was only attached to the deck intermittently, as I attempted to pull the strap securing my bike taught, it released some of the tension on the neighbouring bike already secured to it.

As riders are responsible for securing their own bikes and for any damage caused, what would happen if one of the bikes fell over as a result of previously secure bike falling owing the another being attached to the same hawser? Fortunately it was another calm crossing, but I serious concerns over the arrangements for securing bikes, and do not intend using that crossing again. I wonder if P&O expect lorry drivers to secure their own vehicles too?

The crossing seemed busier, and by the time we got to the coffee shop for some food there was nothing left but pizza as they had obviously underestimated demand; although I was told they had more food on offer than usual.

In the morning, the coffee shop was even busier than it had been on the outward crossing, and the situation was not helped by a number of passengers occupying tables when they were not eating or drinking, and the shortage of chairs was compounded by passengers wanting to ensure the comfort of their luggage by using them for their bags. I mentioned this to a member of crew, but was told that it was not his problem.

On arrival at Hull, we were directed to the vehicle decks and once disembarkation had begun it was a short ride to a holding area just off the ship. Where we waited. And waited.

It took over an hour to get through immigration, with very long queues. Fortunately the weather was favourable or it would have been very unpleasant waiting on the bike on the quayside in cold, wet and windy conditions. I appreciate that immigration is not P&O's responsibility, and that all the available lanes were open, but the ferry terminal is simply not big enough to cope with the size of ferries now being used on the route.

Returning from holiday is never the most joyous of occasions, but the lasting impression could have been so much better.

Overall I was disappointed with my experience. It is not a cheap crossing: my return ticket with cabin was £355 booked two months in advance, and the on board catering was very poorly organised, with insufficient seating capacity and very limited supplies of food.

Most members of the crew I spoke to were friendly and helpful, and the cabins were clean and comfortable - although my cabin on the return crossing had a broken shower, which was duly fixed a few hours after reporting it. The ships are modern and clean, but could have better signage to help passengers find their way around.

P&O needs to improve its arrangements for securing motorcycles on its ferries because the current arrangements are inadequate for anything other than a calm crossing, and look at improving the Hull ferry terminal to cope with the volume of arriving passengers in a more timely manner.

Would I travel on the route again? Probably not, and certainly not with a motorbike.

Ratings for the Pride of Rotterdam & Pride of Hull:
Value: 3/5
Service: 5/5
Food: 2/5
Facilities: 4/5

05 June 2015

Marshall Motor Group

I'm a fairly relaxed and easy-going person. I accept the imperfections of daily life, and that sometimes things don't go entirely to plan. It takes a lot to get me worked up, but in 2008 the Marshall Motor Group, specifically their Bedford Land Rover branch, managed it.

As a rule I don't hold grudges, but when you've been over-charged, told falsehoods, had defective parts fitted to your vehicle, had promised work not done, and then had management poke fun at your name in an attempt to placate you, it's not surprising that I will not give them my custom.

The reason for this post is that I got a call from them inviting me to have my Defender serviced. I bought it from an independent, franchised dealership in Halesworth, Suffolk, which has now been taken over by Marshalls. It's a shame, because the staff there were friendly, the service good, and I never had any cause to complain; the polar opposite of Marshall's ethos.

I didn't realise how strongly I still felt until I received the call.

Without wishing to go in to boring details, although it's all documented, none of the items were in themselves catastrophic, but cumulatively they indicated that the company did not really care about their customers...

...and it hasn't changed now. They're so keen to build a relationship with their customers that instead of someone you know calling you from the dealership, they use a call-centre to take bookings. Calling the dealership I used to use before it become Marshalls to ask them to remove my details too, I offered to explain why but they didn't seem interested.

I've also tweeted to @mmglandrover about their offer but obviously didn't get a response. Same as the letters of complaint I wrote at the time to the dealer principle.

Land Rover are making some great vehicles, but my local dealerships (all owned by Marshalls) are a real deterrent to buying one. I've been in touch with Land Rover directly, but they said it was nothing to do with them. Shame.

Things go wrong from time-to-time. It happens. That's life. What really matters is how you put things right. Sometimes all that's needed is the word "sorry". It's not hard. No, really, it isn't.

Blaming other people, making excuses and not even making a vague attempt to put things right is how not to put things right.

And a final tip: If you have a disgruntled customer on the phone and you're trying to convince them to bring their business back to you, think very carefully about poking fun at their name. It will be a very cold day before I buy a vehicle from, or let them anywhere near, one of my cars.

10 April 2015

Traffic Enforcement: Why we need traffic Police Officers

Every so often there's a surge in media interest in enforcement cameras on the roads, with each side of the argument vociferously defending their respective points of view. There is, however, another side to the debate: what the cameras cannot do.

With the advent of safety camera partnerships across the country, speed cameras were rebranded as safety cameras and they were to become self-financing with the fines used to operate the schemes. Red light cameras were also included in the schemes.

However, regardless of their name, cameras have a very limited repertoire of offences they can enforce and they cannot address the arguably more serious motoring offences.

Safety cameras cannot detect drunk or drugged drivers, tired drivers or those using their mobile phone, reading a map or simply not paying attention. They cannot identify, stop and confiscate uninsured or untaxed vehicles or those that are overloaded or unroadworthy. They cannot offer words of advice or exercise discretion: You need a police officer for that.

In October 2015 it will become an offence to smoke in a car that's carrying children, but safety cameras will not be able to enforce it, just as they cannot detect people carrying unrestrained children in their cars. You need a police officer for that.

Safety camera partnerships say that cameras save lives, but they cannot move to the scene of an incident, give first aid, call an ambulance or the fire service, or comfort those in shock or distress. Police officers can.

It's all very well introducing new laws, but unless you provide the resources to enforce them they are largely pointless. How many lorry and van drivers do you see smoking in their vehicles contrary to the Smoking at Work laws? I'm not adverse to cameras per se, and red light cameras are something I'm very keen on as the victim of someone who didn't think the red traffic signal applied to them, but they are not a panacea for all forms for traffic enforcement.

ANPR (automatic numberplate recognition) cameras, as opposed to safety cameras, do help to detect some of the offences I've mentioned above, but they need real-life police officers to act on the information they provide and intercept the vehicle.

The 'thin blue line' gets ever thinner, but without real-life Police officers all the rules in the world won't stop people doing what they shouldn't to the detriment of others, not to mention the law-makers appearing somewhat foolish too.

09 March 2015

Advanced Driving

One of the most dangerous things we do is drive, and for many people the last time they probably thought about it was when they took their driving test. For some people driving is a stressful business: a necessary chore to get from A to B. Wouldn't it be great if you could feel more confident, more in control, allowing a more relaxed and enjoyable journey?

Advanced driving is about reading the road ahead, planning and anticipating, giving you more space and time to react. There's a perception that it's all about speed but it isn't: it's about car-control and making progress whilst keeping yourself safe. It doesn't matter what type of car you have either: I used my Land Rover Freelander.

There are two main advanced driving organisations in the UK: The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and RoSPA Advanced Drivers and Riders (RoADAR). Both are based on Roadcraft: the Police Driver's Handbook, which teaches what's known as The System.

You will probably have had the MSM mantra drummed in to you by your driving instructor: Mirror Signal Manoeuvre. The System expands on this to IPSGA: Information, Position, Speed, Gears, Acceleration.

Give information (indicators, position on the road, speed) and receive information (mirrors, observations)

Putting your vehicle in the optimum position on the road

Adjust it to suit the manoeuvre by braking or accelerating if necessary

Select the right gear

Once you've made the turn, bend or whatever, accelerate if necessary

You can buy the Roadcraft book from most good bookshops and read it yourself, but it helps to have an independent observer to help guide you because, like trying to proof-read something you've written, it's very difficult to spot your own mistakes.

Your observer will meet with you regularly, and you'll go for a drive in your vehicle. Together you develop your skills and work towards the test itself. You will probably be given a summary of each drive so you can see your progress and the things you need to concentrate on.

Doing some homework is easy: you can practice your skills on every journey you make.

For most people the goal is to pass the advanced driving test, and this is where the two schemes differ. IAM offers a simple pass or fail whilst RoADAR has a graduated result of bronze, silver or gold.

If you're wondering, the IAM pass mark is generally considered equivalent to a RoADAR silver award.

How long does your qualification last? That's the other difference. IAM is a one-off test and whilst you can re-take the test or have an assessed drive, there is no obligation to do so. RoADAR's test is valid for three years and then you need to take it again to retain your qualification - as long as you're a member there's no charge for the re-test.

Why re-take the test? It's those bad habits we all have that creep in! By re-taking the test and having a few observed drives beforehand you can ensure your skills are still sharp.

What are the benefits of being an advanced driver? Some people will tell you that you get a discount on your insurance, and in some cases this is true, but the main benefit is being able to make smoother progress by reading the road ahead and not needing to brake or accelerate as hard - both of which add to the wear and tear on your car and waste fuel - and by doing that you'll make better progress whilst keeping yourself safe.

Your passengers will have a more comfortable ride too, and by reading the road ahead, positioning yourself accordingly you'll make life easier for yourself and have a less stressful journey.

You can find your local group via each organisation's web site.

So which is better? In my opinion RoADAR is best. A gold RoADAR pass is the highest civilian driving qualification there is, and as the test is retaken every three yours you know that the high standard is being maintained.

The IAM pass, being a simple pass or fail, is harder to gauge in terms of the overall quality of the driver. Which, combined with it never having to be retaken, makes it hard to determine how good the driver is now.

Both organisations have schemes for motorcyclists too, which are based on Motorcycle Roadcraft: the Police Rider's Handbook: a modified version of The System tailored for those on two-wheels.

Update - 12 March 15

Since I wrote my initial piece I've been informed that IAM does have a top-tier grade: F1rst. It is awarded to those drivers who achieve top-marks in their assessment, but there is no indication on their web site as to how long that status is retained for, or whether re-tests are required in order to keep it. 

Normal re-tests or assessments are chargeable with IAM but are free with RoADAR. 

Both organisations have local groups that provide the observers, and you will need to join your local group to avail yourself of their assistance.