Tuesday Trip Report: Train to Torquay

Torquay is the home of Basil Fawlty, the long suffering proprietor in the cringingly hilarious English Tv series Fawlty Towers. Its also the town in England where my ancestors came from.

My grandfather often talked about the mighty Great Western Railway steam engines that connected the town to London. The railway designed by British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel,  was designed to be fast, and stylish way of travel. Today the GWR is known as First Great Western (owned by First Group). They operate trains through to Wales and the southwest of England from London’s Paddington station (more well known for the adventures of a certain lost bear than its amazing engineering!)

Booking

The first thing one needs to be aware of is the bewildering number of fares that the Rail companies offer for the same seat. Rock up to the ticket office on the day and you will find  a First Anytime single ticket will cost £169.50!  (around $260-$270).  I refuse to pay full fare and booked in advance, getting a non changeable, non refundable ticket for £14.50. I generally use three websites to buy train tickets in England:

  1. www.thetrainline.com/
  2. http://www.virgintrains.co.uk/
  3. http://www.southwesttrains.co.uk/
I have recently added a new site:  http://www.redspottedhanky.com/ which is very user friendly and on specific occasions I use megatrain. People are very surprised at how much train fares vary between these booking sites. No one could believe I paid a mere  £14.50. For that I got a reserved seat at a table with laptop power for the entire trip.

Ticket Collection

I elected to collect my pre paid tickets from the automatic ticket machines at Paddington Station. I was very frustrated to find my Australian credit cards no longer work in the railway booking machines. This seems to be an ongoing trend. I cannot use them on some US subway systems because they ask for a five digit zip code. The First Great Westerbn ticket clerk was very helpful and printed off all my tickets for all of my UK train trips. There is no check in required for UK Trains.

Boarding

The Platform (Track) number was announced about 15 minutes before the departure time. Every carriage is clearly labelled by letter (I was in Car D). There are two doors to enter each carriage. Each door has a placard indicating which seats are located nearest that door. Once inside the carriage, seats are easily found. They are all clearly labelled with their numbers.  On the headrest of each carriage is a small ticket sized card listing when the seat has been reserved. I had mine the whole way. The seat opposite me had four different occupants over the trip. Don’t expect to talk. English travellers are very adept at avoiding eye contact and conversation with strangers.

Seat pitch (distance between seats) in the Standard Class HST (High Speed Train) is 32″. The trains themselves are about 40 years old but have been extensively renovated. Luggage space compared to Australian and US trains is very limited. Travelling with a full size suitcase is best avoided. My carry on airline bag fits fine.

Route

London Paddington – Reading (where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned). The line opened in stages between 1838 and 1841. Originally the tracks were seven feet wide but were later converted to the standard 4’8″ gauge. The 7′ gauge allowed faster more comfortable more stable trains.. It would be fascinating if that gauge had won out.  In 1844  the Great Western Hotel was opened at Reading station- its the oldest continually running railway hotel in the world. The trains to Reading run at top speed of 140km (90mph) but are being electrified in the future for 225km/h (125mph).
Reading- Bristol-Taunton – the trains can run a bit faster (160km/h- 100mph).
Taunton- Exeter – Exeter is one of England’s oldest cities founded on the River Exe by the Romans as Isca Dumnoniorum in 50AD. There had been a settlement here from 250BC. The city was occupied/owned/attacked by the Britons, Saxons, French, Danes and Normans. Its Cathedral was founded in the early 12th century.

Exeter to Teignmouth-Newton Abbot, known as the “Riveria Line”,  opened on 30th May 1846 (which makes it 165 years old) is my favourite part of the route. I was very pleased I had a window seat on the left side of the train. The  rail line runs along the river Exe to the point where it meets the sea. The train runs along the seafront next to part of the The South West Coast Path is the longest walking trail in the United Kingdom. At this point, trains often get lashed by waves! The line was originally operated without engines being pushed instead by air pressure within a pneumatic tube laid between the rails. The system lasted for only a year. Not one of Brunel’s successes.There are several tunnels on the line which are a Brunel success. One tunnel is cut through an old smugglers’ tunnel.

Newton Abbot-Torquay-the  train drops down steadily and the steeply into Torquay which is built right next to the beach. I wheeled my suitcase off the train and here I was, 101 years after my grandfather had left the area.
My ratings:

90% (4.5 out of 5)

Positives:  Great views, on time, well organised

Negatives: Ticket machine not accepting Australian credit cards, limited luggage space,

Would I use them again? Yes, especially if I get a window seat on the side with a view of the sea

Comments

  1. Congrats on your new blog host. Wanted to comment on the old one several times, but always got error messages.

    Love your stuff and this train story is interesting as well!

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