Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tubing and Training, English-Style

Before moving on to my Day 2 adventure, I thought I would share my experiences on London and England’s transportation situation--very impressive!

I love Vancouver and Canada, but we have a LOT to learn about how to make transit work seamlessly and smoothly.  The Tube is absolutely amazing--it’s quite extensive and not only covers London but the outer areas of London as well.  You can literally get across the city in minutes, you just need to know what line you’re getting on and which direction you’re going, or else you’ll get whisked away into oblivion.  I kid you not, within a day, I was a pro at the Tube.  Within a few days, I was giving tourists directions, showing them how to use the swipe thing, and how to read their Tube map with all the pretty coloured lines everywhere.  Add a British accent and remove my camera, and I could have been a local.

If you are anywhere near claustrophobic, that could be an issue, given it feels initially like you are taking journey to the centre of the earth.   When I bought my London Pass (it’s for attractions), I received a travel card with it, which allowed me to travel on the Tube, anytime and anywhere, for 6 days.  Once that card expired, I switched to an Oyster Card which you fill up with GPB and with one quick swipe, the turn-style moves, and away you go--it’s that easy.  I also had to remember that I needed to pull out my Oyster Card when I want to leave the station as well, which is a bit weird--the first time I left a station, I kept trying to force myself through the metal bars, until one of their kind transit police rescued me from the humiliation.  

I did find that during rush hour, you had better know where the hell you are going, ie. which direction and to what station, or else you will just be carried away with the crowd.  It was like watching a finely choreographed dance--there was no room for error, and if you did slip up, it was not tolerated by the crowd, tourist or not.

Unlike our sub-standard Skytrain in Vancouver, the Tube trains call out the station way in advance.  With Skytrain, when the station name is called out, you should be getting up and ready to get off.  So when I employed the same strategy on the Tube, I looked like a right idiot getting up and fighting my way to the door, only to be standing their for another 3 or 4 minutes.  Oh well, the camera around my neck was a dead give-away that there was a tourist in the house.  

The stations and the trains themselves were ridiculously clean, and you always feel safe given there are cameras everywhere (not only in the Tube stations but all over the city).  There is “the voice” which you hear in the stations, usually saying “mind the gap”, and rightly so--sometimes the gap is huge between the platform and the train.  I assumed the voice was a pre-recorded thing, until one morning I had come down to the platform, only to find out that I had just missed the train.  I stood in the doorway where people come and go from the platform to find something in my bag, when the voice said “please clear all exits and entrances”.  As I looked up in disbelief (it was said almost immediately after I stopped in the doorway), the voice said “yes, you” and I was shocked, and so were the people around me.  Someone told me that they’ve never heard “the voice” talk to an actual person before, so I quickly retorted that the voice has never met me before.

Half of my trip was spent taking day-trips out of London, so I bought a Brit Rail pass before I left Canada so I could get around.  I’m just not a tour-group kind of gal--I want to be in charge of my time spent at places and be able to come and go as I please.  Just like the Tube, the trains were fabulous.  The train stations themselves are huge, and a little intimidating until you figure out how it all works.  There’s a central electronic board with all the trains, times, and their destinations.  I vigilantly used National Rail’s website (now they have an iPhone app) that helps you figure out what train you want to go where and all the times of the trains--it was so easy to use, so when I got to the rail stations, I knew exactly what train I was taking and when it was leaving.  What I didn’t realize at first, is that they don’t let you board the train until about 10 mins before it leaves, and when it says it’s leaving at 9:12 am, it leaves right on time and waits for no one, including me. 

The trains are very nice--practically new, and no switching back and forth on the track (see my Toronto train ride from hell blog).  And even better, there was hardly anyone on them, and I went mostly at the early morning hours too!  I did figure out that they have these lovely cars called the “Quiet Zone”...ah, just like the special room on the new BC Ferry boats--no cell phones, no noise, and most of all, no kids.  It took me a few rides to find the Quiet Zone, but once found, there was no turning back.  

I met some really nice fellows that worked for the various railways...the conductor who stamped my rail pass the first day of my travel was kind enough to stamp it so I got an extra day--I think I may have had some Lululemon cleavage going on that day.  I also met a more than helpful fellow in uniform  on the platform at Clapham Junction, where I went  from Windsor to Hampton Court--hey, I was lost and needed help making sure I was on the right train (wink wink).  Unfortunately, he lived too far away from London or else a date would have ensued for sure.

As busy as they were, I found the rail stations to be wonderful and terribly romantic.  And as much as I wanted to be wearing a dress for all of my train rides, I went with the more practical approach, especially given my end destinations required a significant amount of walking and stair-climbing--there's no way a Betsey dress would have survived.  

I loved every minute of traveling in London, under London, out of London.  The best part was disappearing out into the English countryside where the views were, at times, absolutely breathtaking.

Take a look at my little video...

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