Trains – Choo Choo?

Came back in last night from Colchester by the train line and I must say, I absolutely adore the train system here. To be honest, I don’t know if it could ever become a thing in the US due to the sheer size of the country, but it works well for the UK. Rather than just gush about how cool the trains are here, I thought I’d just give you an idea of how a typical journey has gone so far (we’ll stay on the rosy side and not go into the fun of when the trains go awry this time).

To begin with, I ordered the tickets online in advance. Not the furthest in advance for optimal pricing this time, but it does make a major difference in cost. Train travel has a lot of options, and booking a particular train for a particular time in advance is typically the cheapest method of traveling on the rail. However, there are also options such as off-peak, super off-peak, or anytime passes that you can buy for a day at different costs if you want some more leeway in when you’re on the train that day. Another fantastic feature is the railcard system. I qualify from age alone to get the 16-25 railcard discount, which takes 1/3 off each ticket I purchase. The card is also good for students of any age, so long as you have proof of student status. There are also a few other schemes such as the Two Together railcard, the Family & Friends railcard, the Senior railcard, or the Disabled Persons railcard. If you’re planning on making at least 2 decent-length journeys while here, these railcards will pay themselves off really quickly. God knows I’ll manage to do it.

So I booked the tickets online through National Rail this time, though there are other options such as the train companies or third parties. If you’re in a small enough place, you may need to have your tickets posted to you overnight or within a week, but living in Leicester means I have the option of picking up my tickets at a self-service machine at the station here in the city. In order to do this, you only need the card you used to purchase the ticket and the confirmation code, which is sent to you via email. When the machine prints out your ticket, it’ll look something like this:

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 07.25.18 pmWell, actually you’ll get 2-3 little stubs in total, but this is the actual ticket. The others are good to hold on to for advance tickets as they’ll usually have your seat information if you reserved a spot. Now with this ticket, I have to keep my railcard with me as they will check your ticket on the train to make sure you’ve paid for that particular train (and there are some stiff fines if you haven’t), as well as check to make sure you actually have the valid railcard for the discount.

This ticket was actually run through machines at 6 different points, so HOLD ON to these more-orange-than-golden tickets. In this instance I was coming from Colchester back to Leicester which meant feeding it through the gate at the platform to get to my first train, then to get off that train platform in London at Liverpool Street Station. I then fed it through the Underground turnstile to get from Liverpool Street Station (Don’t just call it Liverpool, even if the context is known. You will be giggled at by locals.) to King’s Cross St Pancras International Station and again through a turnstile to get out. (Technically there is King’s Cross Station and then across the street is St Pancras International Station, but the Underground stop is good for both. Trust me, you don’t walk far to get to either – maybe 5 minutes if there’s a queue to leave the Underground?) Pro tip at this point – see the little cross at the bottom middle of my ticket? That means that your fare on the Underground is included in the cost of the ticket so long as you’re going from point A to point B. Just run it through the Underground turnstile like a day pass and it lets you right through. Of course, (as I am coming to see about a lot of things) the Brits kinda just assume you know basic facts like these and it’s not mentioned in any obvious points. Finally, this ticket will be run through a machine again to get on the platform at St Pancras, and then depending on the time of day you get to your destination it’ll go through the exit machine and possibly be eaten. I got in late on this round and they’d just opened all the exit gates so they wouldn’t have to be staffed in case of machine muck-ups. You can also see the stamp on the bottom middle where the train conductor checked my ticket.

So what about the trains themselves? Well, it depends if you end up on a commuter train or a long distance one. From Colchester to London I was in a commuter train similar to this, run by Abellio Greater Anglia, which stopped about every 10 minutes for about an hour to get to London:

This is one of the more spacious commuter trains. There’s been at least one I ended up crammed in the exit passageway by the door, standing for the whole ride. At least you can stick your head out the window?

 

Then when I left London for Leicester, I got on a train with East Midland Trains that only stopped at Leicester, Loughborough, East Midlands Parkway, Long Eaton, and Derby (pronounced Darby). Seeing as I was the first stop, it was a nice straight shot. That train looked more like this:

You can’t fit more than a small duffel bag or a jacket up in those racks btw. RyanAir-sized luggage is even too big. There is a luggage rack on each end of the carriage though.

This all seems pretty straightforward, but then the anthropologist gets let loose and it gets to be pretty entertaining. (For me anyway.) It’s one thing to ride the trains. It’s another thing on how to follow the cultural norms of the trains. Let’s continue with this particular train journey. From Colchester to London, I had stood at the platform and just kinda zoned out until the train arrived. Unlike in the US, it’s pretty odd for a stranger to come up to talk to you. As the train came in to the station a woman had asked me if she had the right one, and we all quietly shuffled into the carriage. It’s not an everyday phenomena, but sometimes when I say something I’ll get people asking if I’m American or Canadian, which happened this time. She said she could never tell the two apart, and a very well-timed Canadian that just happened to be on the train chimed in to represent the Canadian homeland.

From that point, Canadian Jake and I chattered for the rest of the ride into London. If you catch other North Americans on a train and they seem friendly enough, it tends to be fine to talk to them, even if they’re strangers. It can be a nice little slice of home to hear a reference (like “Rocky Top”) that’s totally lost on the locals here. I’m glad I talked to Canadian Jake, as I now know of a promising burrito joint at King’s Cross to check out.¬†Getting on to the train to Leicester was more of the average experience. Everyone is very polite and courteous, but beyond that you really don’t talk to anyone you don’t know, even at a table seat. You just read or write or gaze off into space and hope you don’t accidentally end up staring at someone. Train trips are MUCH faster with friends.

Speaking of friends, I watched two girls out of the corner of my eye at the table seats to the right of me pop open a bottle of wine and have a few drinks while nibbling on snacks on our journey north. Drinking laws are much, much more lax here than they are in the States, and you can not only buy alcohol on the train from the food carriage/trolley (depends on the train), but you can totally just bring your own and drink it – the staff on the train couldn’t care less. I’ve not yet done it, but it feels like I’m being a little wicked and breaking all the rules I’ve grown up with. Give me a month or so though, as it’ll probably amuse me far more than it should. It’s the little things that are fun like that. ūüėČ

Hmm… Have I missed any important bits? Have any questions? Feel free to leave me a comment, especially if there’s something about life here you’ve been curious about. Otherwise you are subjected to my totally random topic choices! Well, I’ve got a field trip tomorrow with the programme to Sheffield at 8 am, so I should probably wrap things up soon anyway. All is doing well here. ūüôā

— Kate

 

Incoming!

I’ve made it in mostly one piece to town! All said and done, it took about 25 hours of travel from my parents’ front door¬†to getting my keys in Leicester. The problem with leaving a teeny tiny town like my folks’¬†is that although it has an airport, it consists only of puddle-jumper planes that get you to your next major airport. Generally, these flights¬†are not cheap when tacked on to an already existing flight schedule. Instead, I took the 4 hour bus ride¬†to the airport and flew out from there. The fast-track lane for security seems to be gaining traction, though why they sent me through it I don’t know, because I ended up having to go through the backscatter machine anyway. Yay for failing the metal detector? At least I didn’t have to take off my shoes, by god.

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Don’t have to fight for the charging point when you get in early.

Caffeinated and charged, I got on the plane with my window seat view. Oh yeeeeah. It was a pretty uneventful flight for the first leg, but the view was gorgeous. There’s nothing quite like the Rocky Mountain chain. Also, I’m not sure which airplane gods took pity on me, but the leg room was amazing. It almost felt wasted on my shortness.

 

Once in the second airport, I grabbed a sandwich as I was regretting not getting one beforehand and got to pay Starbucks $7 for a ham and swiss. Highway robbery! Waited around and charged up my phone some more and finally got on the long haul flight. I thought British Airways was actually flying this one, but it was American Airlines again. Not a bad flight, but the movie and TV choices were limited at best. Tossed and turned and maybe slept 3 hours of the 9 hour flight before giving up, utterly defeated by my seat.

(At this point, my phone had a fit and ate all my photos between the plane and the next morning. Sorry!) Once off the plane, you have to go through the UK Border checkpoint and it seems they’ve decided to try something new for the incoming students with our own special queue. If you are coming over as a student, be prepared to wait an hour or so in this special queue as the regular entrance queue¬†breezes past you. We all watched a few students get fed up waiting that then jumped into the regular queue and seemed to make it through, but the border guards were not people¬†that any of us wanted to cross so we stuck it out.

Out of the airport, it’s a very easy trip to Leicester. The Underground has stations at each terminal, so you just get on with your luggage and go. The train that terminates at Cockfosters (go on, get the giggles out) means you can get on and ride for about 15 stops to the King’s Cross/St Pancras exit and then come up into King’s Cross and walk across the street to St Pancras. From there it was a brief trip to the toilets to wash my now grey hands and then upstairs to the East Midlands trains.

The train ride was uneventful, but mostly because I kept falling asleep in my seat. Having a table seat was wasted on my sleepiness. Be sure you keep your train ticket with you when you’ve gotten past the barriers, because they’ll check it when you get moving! We pulled in to Leicester and I could see my tower building from the tracks, so myself and my two suitcases hopped off and started walking to the flat. Ahead of time I had made a Google Streetview/Maps note where I had screencapped major points along the way and then attached the directions to them, figuring it would save me from eating the data on the pay as you go SIM in the phone. This helped IMMENSELY. Unlike the US, there is not always a street name marker on every corner, not are they as visible. Don’t even ask about blocks – there are no such equivalents.

While it would seem logical that the tall buildings in town would make for good visual markers, they really aren’t that helpful. For whatever reason, when you’re down on the street you can’t always see the tall buildings until you are right up on them.

Anyway, I made it in, signed my paperwork (Thank you Katt!) and dragged myself up the elevator and straight into the shower. The place looked like a tornado came through with the suitcases basically flipped to find the shower stuff. Ahh, clean feels so good. After that, it was a quick run to the nearest shop (in this case Tesco) for the absolute bare basics. From there, I fought sleep until I ended up falling asleep with Skype open. (Sorry about that!)

So this morning, the world was not such an overwhelming thing with adequate sleep. Started off with a thick fog, but it was mostly gone and only cloudy by the time I left for the city centre. The humidity though… That will take some re-adjusting to. I’ve done it before, but it’s been a few years.

 

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Also saw some pithy little graffiti nearby.

From there I stopped into the Newarke Houses Museum, which is this awesome mixture of Elizabethan houses with history ranging from the 1500s to WWI. Will definitely have to go back sometime.

Getting hungry, I started to walk more into town. I ended up stopping at a McDonald’s out of curiosity and convenience, and the cheeseburger and fries/chips taste exactly the same. Once in town, there was plenty to see, and this is only a tiny bit of it!

I didn’t take many photos downtown as I was trying to get a feel for where places were, but I’ll try to on further trips. After all this, I had a stocked bag full of flat supplies so I walked on home. Apparently DMU is having a Con of some kind, because I ran into what can only be described as anime coming off the screen.

So here I am now, writing this up after walking past this silliness back to the flat. It’s late here now, and I’m exhausted, so I will speak again in the next few days! Hopefully will be on the right time zone soon enough.

 

— Kate