Simon Calder

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The Independent Online
At about six o'clock this morning, Britain's railways should have slowly risen from their Christmas slumbers; while most other countries in Europe run a comprehensive service, in the UK only the Gatwick Express kept going. It is, therefore, timely to return to a topic that has dogged travellers all year: how are you supposed to find out which trains are running? Mark Broomfield, of Cheshire, was travelling home to Helsby after a meeting in London.

"My train arrived in Chester at about a quarter to nine and, according to National Rail Inquiries (0345 484950), I could catch the 8.59 and get into Helsby 10 minutes later. The Railtrack Internet site confirmed this view. But on the train north from London I noticed that the printed timetable said this was wrong - I'd actually have to wait for an hour and a quarter at Chester, as the 8.59 didn't stop at Helsby. The guard checked the main timetable, and agreed that I'd have to wait.

"When I got to Chester, I asked the station master where I could catch a bus. He said that he rather thought the 8.59 did stop at Helsby. The overhead monitors supported his view, but on the other hand the departures notice boards on the platforms didn't. When the train finally arrived, two passengers and the stationmaster tried to persuade the driver and guard (who didn't have Helsby on their docket) to be the 8.59 to Helsby in a scene reminiscent of Three Men in a Boat.

"They finally agreed to stop at Helsby, and our relief was only slightly dampened by a half-hour delay, ostensibly due to mechanical problems, but actually (I suspect) to let smart-aleck passengers know who was boss."

At least travellers to and from north-west England are benefiting from low fares - so low, says Mike Stace of Tonbridge, that Richard Branson actually pays you. "Virgin Trains' new pounds 19 return fare from Manchester to the capital is excellent value, but it is not the most reliable line in Britain." Mr Stace found himself delayed by just over an hour. He wrote to Virgin, and the company promptly sent him a voucher for pounds 20. So far he is a pound ahead, with 368 "free" rail miles under his belt.

A similar story is told by Roger Hand of Berkshire: "I travelled on a Eurostar train from Waterloo to Paris which arrived 30 to 40 minutes late. All passengers were given a voucher for an equivalent free single journey."

Mr Hand is a little concerned about the conditions for the voucher: "It has to be used within six months and is `subject to availability'. I expect I'll have to choose a wet Wednesday in January if I want to take advantage of the offer." As Mr Hand points out, though, "BA doesn't do that".

From obfuscation to omniscience. Helen McWilliam, of the guidebook publisher Lonely Planet, writes with a tale of two cameras on her Emirates flight from Bangkok. "One camera is fitted underneath the plane, and the other in front of it. They are switched on at all times, and are fed through as one of the options for your seat-back video. You can watch the plane take off and land, and in flight see what's beneath you.

"When I first realised I would be watching the take-off from my seat, I thought it would be terrifying. In fact it was very reassuring being able to see the view from the pilot's seat, and it made the landing seem much smoother than watching it from the side window. I recommend it to people scared of flying - it really makes the journey less daunting."

Wherever you travel in the coming year, may it be safe, stimulating and satisfying.

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