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Travel

The Redesdale bridge

A couple of weeks ago I passed through Redesdale, and its 152 year old bridge. This, by Australian standards, is pretty old.

Despite the sign, it opened in 1868, not 1867.

On approach, there’s a warning sign about the width (3.2 metres) and height (4.3 metres) limit. Higher than the Montague Street Bridge, but not as capacious as bridges built to modern standards.

Making the bridge doubly fascinating is the story behind it: the ironwork was intended for the Hawthorn bridge (at Bridge Road), but the ship carrying it from Britain caught fire and sunk in Hobsons Bay. Eventually the ironwork was salvaged and used at Redesdale.

Redesdale Bridge

A relative reckons that during heavy rain, it’s not unknown for the river to reach the bridge deck – which must be quite a sight.

But even with the river level far lower, on a long drive, it’s an eyecatching sight.

Years ago (pre-digital photos) I remember seeing the Genoa bridge. Not as old – 1920s, but still very appealing. Unfortunately it’s been destroyed in the fires.

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Europe 1998 🇬🇧🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿🇧🇪🇳🇱 Photos from ten years ago

Old photos from Europe 20 years ago

Normally each month I post photos from ten years earlier.

I noticed that it’s twenty years since my 1998 trip to Europe. This was the first trip I blogged in excruciating unnecessary detail – and I’m glad I did, as I’ve been rereading the posts, reliving the trip.

I’ve taken the opportunity to re-scan some of the better photos and update the blog posts, and here they are in a post of their own.

2/9/1998: arriving in London for the first time, I suddenly felt like I was from some hick town. The place was just so busy. This is outside Victoria Station.
London Victoria, 2/9/1998

3/9/1998: Exploring Chichester near my grandparents’ place
Chichester, England, 3/9/1998

4/9/1998: Arundel Castle, which is probably not even in the top ten British castles… but frankly if you’ve never seen a castle before, is damn impressive.
Arundel Castle, England, 4/9/1998

6/9/1998: On a train from my grandparents’ place near Bognor Regis, heading towards London. The photo was taken using a timer and placing the camera on the window ledge opposite. Does that mean it was a selfie, before anybody called them selfies?
On a train from Bognor to London, 6/9/1998

Later the same day, in York.
Bootham Bar, York, 6/9/1998

York. Another selfie. Camera on a bollard.
Exploring York, 6/9/1998

7/9/1998: Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle, 7/9/1998

Edinburgh looking down at the railway station.
View from Edinburgh Castle, 8/9/1998

10/9/1998: Near Plockton, Scotland. Camera on a rock.
Plockton, Scotland, 10/9/1998

Plockton. It’s that kind of town.
Cow walking down the street in Plockton, Scotland, 10/9/1998

Near Plockton. Yes, there is a railway somewhere in there.
Near Plockton, Scotland, 10/9/1998

The view of Plockton from across the water. Pretty scenic!
Plockton, Scotland, 10/9/1998

11/9/1998: Doctor Who was on its long (1989 to 2005) hiatus back then, but so it was very nice to find this Police Box in Earls Court, London.
Police Box at Earls Court, London, 11/9/1998

12/9/1998: The most famous zebra crossing in the world at Abbey Road. Shame I glanced to my left just as my buddy Merlin took the photo… and wouldn’t know until weeks later thanks to it being a film camera.
Abbey Road, 12/9/1998

15/9/1998: We got to Bruges on our trip in 2017, but I’d also made it there with friends back in 1998. From what I saw, it hasn’t changed much!
Bruges, 15/9/1998

16/9/1998: Boarding a high speed train from Brussels to Amsterdam.
Boarding a Thalys train in Brussels, 16/9/1998

18/9/1998: Back in… where is this place again? Once again, the perils of film cameras meant that it would be weeks before noticing that a world famous landmark appeared to be coming out of the top of my head.
Tower Bridge, 18/9/1998

Finally, I’ve posted this before, but here are some video highlights from that trip.

Daniel’s 1998 Europe trip highlights from Daniel Bowen on Vimeo.

If you feel like wasting your time, you can read my twenty year old travel blog here.

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Sydney 2018 Toxic Custard newsletter

Cruising home like a rock star

Backdated. Posted 26/5/2018

Last morning in Sydney; almost time to go home.

After checking out of the hotel, we headed back to the gallery to see if Sunday morning was a better option for looking at the Archibald Prize finalists than Friday had been.

On the walk, the last of the half-marathon runners were coming through, including one old bloke, jogging along to the encouragement of passers-by and event organisers.

Art Gallery of NSW

Ibis at Art Gallery of NSW

First, a bite in the gallery cafe for breakfast, while trying to keep the ibis away from our food. They didn’t seem spooked by the fake owl.

Then we looked around the exhibition. Some great works, both the Archibalds and finalists from the Wynne and Sulman prizes, also on display.

Funny Hahas and Bloody Galahs - by Craig Handley - at Art Gallery of NSW

From there another walk across the park and a poke around the shops for a bit.

Back to the hotel to pick up the bags, then we headed for St James Station — drawing another bum card, as again due to works we went around the City Circle the wrong way (but hey, that Circular Quay view!!) and had to change at Central for the Airport line.

View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay station

Sydney Airport - Domestic Railway Station

No matter, back at Sydney Airport in plenty of time, no thanks to a faulty escalator at the Domestic station.

Flying home Business Class

As I mentioned, we ended up flying back Business Class on points.

The following may seem trivial to people who usually fly Business, but as someone who has only previously flown Economy, I found it an interesting contrast.

The Virgin lounge was pretty busy, and apart from the complimentary food and drink, perhaps little different to the public areas of most airports these days. WiFi and power for a laptop and somewhere to sit are pretty common.

The really luxurious place in the airport is something I’ve only heard about (and don’t expect to ever see inside): the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge.

Perhaps more advantageous than Virgin’s lounge was priority boarding, skipping the queue. Mixed feelings: guilt for jumping the queue, rock star for walking straight in, but fraud for doing it on points!

Priority boarding queue at Sydney Airport

And once aboard – the seats are certainly much more spacious. And personal service – would you like a drink before we take-off, Mr Bowen?

We got a good view as we took off, but you can get that from any window seat.

Taking off from Sydney

Of the eight Business Class seats in the plane, four were taken, four were empty.

Being much a bigger seat, you get more window. And at the front of the plane you get a better sense of what’s going on, as the flight crew chat among themselves, and you can see the pier closing and moving away before the plane pushes back.

Cruising in Business Class

On the way up to Sydney in Economy (departing 7:30pm), we’d been given a packet containing five cracker biscuits and five slices of cheese.

Coming back in Business Class (departing 4:30pm), it was a full meal with a choice of options – I went for the Moroccan lamb jaffle. On a real plate, with real metal cutlery and a cloth napkin.

Business class meal on Virgin

After landing, one of the hosties positioned herself in the aisle to make sure us high flyers got to leave first, without the hoi polloi from Economy getting ahead of us.

And at the baggage carousel, my bag came out super-quick thanks to the Priority tag they’d put on it. (My usual suitcase is actually small enough to take as carry-on, but I generally prefer not to schlep around the airport with it. Plus I had some liquid in it — I’d bought a bottle of hot sauce at the farmers market to take home.)

Priority luggage allowed me to leave the terminal several minutes quicker, and get on a Skybus sooner (I only just caught it), with an earlier train connection home. So it got me home more quickly. Maybe only ten minutes earlier, but it helped.

Some people yearn for the olden days of air travel. The glamour, the personal service.

This of course was a time when most people couldn’t afford to fly at all. But for those who did, there was more space and better service.

Clearly you can still have it — to an extent — if you’re willing to pay for it.

But it’s not cheap. Checking Virgin’s web site, flights to Sydney start from $125 in Economy — for Business Class you’re paying at least $499 (for a Business Saver fare).

I could get used to travelling Business, but my budget isn’t likely to allow it very often. Perhaps I’ll aim for the occasional points upgrade.

Back in Melbourne

Straight onto a Skybus back to the City. Unlike the slow trip on Thursday night, this was a quick 23 minutes, at full speed along most of the freeway. It could have been a minute or two faster if there was traffic light priority when the bus left the freeway at Footscray Road.

Then straight onto a train home — noting that since the removal of seats around the doorways, there are very few spots in the Alstom Comeng trains where you can sit, and have your suitcase with you, but out of the way.

Back in drizzly Melbourne - Southern Cross Station

After a few days of sun in Sydney, I was back in drizzly cold Melbourne.

But with such a relaxing flight home, it didn’t matter a bit.

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Sydney 2018 Toxic Custard newsletter

The noise of art

Backdated. Posted 24/5/2018

Sydney getaway continued. First stop: a bakery in the Queen Victoria Building, the spectacular 19th century shopping arcade, where we grabbed some croissants for breakfast.

Then to Town Hall Station to hop on a train to inner-city Redfern.

A short walk from Redfern Station is Carriageworks, a former… well, railway carriage workshop, where there’s a farmers market on Saturdays, and art in the adjacent workshop buildings, which have been converted into gallery spaces.

Carriageworks market, Sydney

We browsed through the market — I bought a bottle of hot sauce to take home for my sons — then we took a look at the galleries: the Sydney Biennale was on.

The interactive work “Constellations involved a huge white wall and a baseball bat. You take the bat and hit the wall, then listen to the sounds reverberating through the space.

Unbeknownst to the audience, a concert-size public address system, including multiple subwoofers, microphones and related sound equipment, is hidden within the structure. The sound of the impact between bat and wall is amplified by a massive 120 decibels, reverberating throughout the gallery space and the building.

As you can see from the video, when I had a go, there was a bonus, unexpected sound: that of a scared toddler who had just come around the corner, overwhelmed by the noise. Poor kid.

Some of the other artworks were very cool as well, though nothing quite as interactive.

Biennale Sydney at Carriageworks

From there we had a walk around Redfern, to see if we could find any good street art.

Eventually we found a little, but not much. Ever tried Googling for “street art in Redfern”? No helpful results.

Some lovely terrace houses though.

Redfern

Street art in Redfern

Redfern Municipal Electric Light Station

Redfern, looking towards UTS

We ducked back to the hotel to grab the present I’d brought up for my cousin’s daughter (that makes her my cousin once removed) and headed out to Marrickville.

It’s a pleasant walk from the station to the park where we were meeting. It’s a very hilly area, and the council has created small parks in a few spots by closing off streets. Probably too hilly for playing football.

Marrickville, Sydney. Fancy a game of kick to kick? 🏉

A post shared by Daniel Bowen (@danielfbowen) on

Further down towards the park and the river, I noted these height markers — I assume every so often the whole area floods, which explains why some houses were elevated above street level. (Zero was street level, not footpath level. I’m not actually two metres tall.)

Flood depth level at Marrickville, Sydney

A lovely park BBQ with my relatives, then we headed by train and bus to my friend K’s place in the inner-west suburb of Forest Lodge for some nibbles, wine, a home made stew and some entertaining conversation.

K showed us through the nearby TramSheds — you guessed it, a former… tram shed, part of the old Rozelle tram depot. They’ve got a restored traditional Sydney R-class tram in there. (Restored in Bendigo, in fact, the same place Melbourne’s W-class trams are restored.)

Restored tram at TramSheds (formerly Rozelle tram depot), Sydney

It never occurred to me before that the traditional Sydney tram colours are the same as the traditional Sydney ferry colours. (I’ll probably write a separate post about public transport modal branding in Sydney. I find it quite interesting.)

I mentioned yesterday the confusion of Sydney authorities as to whether light rail is tram or train. In Melbourne it’s definitely a tram. In Sydney it’s apparently a train, even though it’s branded “L” not “T”:

Sydney L1 light rail warning

We caught the “L1” Light Rail back into the city.

The train tram was quiet at the western end, but got packed when we reached the Casino.

Sydney L1 light rail

We hopped off at Capitol Square and walked back to the hotel. George Street was awash with young party animals, and relatively few civilians, making it somewhat noisy, and the quiet comfort of the hotel even more welcoming.

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Sydney 2018 Toxic Custard newsletter

Sydney on shanks’ pony

Backdated. Posted 23/5/2018

Hotel buffet breakfast at the Sheraton is an eye-popping $44 per person. This is no big surprise – hotel breakfasts are always expensive.

But they’d said at check-in that we had a $50 credit, so that took the cost down to $38 for the two of us, which is probably cheaper than if we went out somewhere for breakfast. So we dined in — and very nice it was too.

Three course breakfast? Why not! That’s okay — we would end up walking all day.

The locations plotted on my Google Maps timeline for the day aren’t quite right. At no point did we walk on water, for instance. But given the glorious weather, we did explore extensively on foot — and all within a few kilometres of the hotel.

Where we walked 18/5/2018

Heading out of the hotel, in Hyde Park we found preparation for the Sydney half-marathon, and this bloke from a backpacker tour group, minding all the bags while his compatriots were evidently elsewhere.

Minding the bags, Hyde Park, Sydney

One lesson I’ve learnt over the years is that if there’s a particular impetus for your trip, then if possible get that thing done as a priority. Just in case.

So we headed straight to the Art Gallery of NSW to the Lady and the Unicorn exhibit.

Amazing 500ish year old tapestries visiting from France.

When M had mentioned it to an acquaintance who had never heard of tapestries, it was apparently interpreted as some kind of culinary event. Apparently tapestries are delicious… because they’re closely related to tapas.

Lady and the Unicorn exhibition, Art Gallery of NSW

We’d booked for 10:30am on Friday in the hope that being early on a work day, it would be quiet. It wasn’t — busloads of retirees seemed to be coming in, and as we looked around, it got busier and busier. Still good though; if you’re in Sydney in the next month or so, get along.

We pondered also looking in at the Archibald finalists, also on display. The queue just for tickets was getting long, and we could see that inside it was very busy, so after a look around the gallery shop, instead we headed out for more walking.

First up to Mrs Macquarie’s Point, where spectacular views were to be found, and we joined in the other tourists at snapping away at the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

Sydney Harbour tourists

Moreton Bay fig tree at Sydney Harbour

At some stage my phone lost its data connection. Odd – I don’t recall that happening before. There was some confusion getting it resolved, as when I had WiFi, I checked Telstra’s outages page, which said there was a fault in the area. Telstra’s people on Twitter however suggested rebooting, which turned out to resolve it.

Then we walked across the Botanic Garden. Why is it Garden, singular, when Melbourne has the Botanic Gardens? I demand to know. (If you’re wondering they’re a similar size – Sydney 30 hectares, Melbourne 38, though I suppose Melbourne also has a separate garden at Cranbourne).

Sydney Royal Botanic Garden entrance

This VMS was flashing messages for the forthcoming Vivid festival, so naturally I snapped on particular message.

Use public transport - sign for Vivid Sydney

On a recommendation of a friend, we had lunch at the Governor’s Kitchen, the restaurant adjacent to the Sydney Museum.

One delicious yet relaxing lunch later (well, apart from perhaps a little too much traffic noise), we headed back to the hotel for a bit, then out into the CBD proper along George Street.

George Street used to be a wall of buses at peak times, but currently it’s being dug up for the light rail project.

As you can see, they use concrete blocks for bollards in Sydney. Except unlike in Melbourne, these don’t appear to attract litter or decorations.

George Street, Sydney - light rail under construction

Some commenters from Melbourne who may or may not be fully informed have noted that while Yarra Trams might not be perfect, they’d have had the whole thing done and dusted within weeks. Witness the diversion/reconstruction of tram tracks along St Kilda Road – it took about two weeks.

Mind you the George Street design includes wireless technology — the tracks have a conductor rail that will pass power into the trams as they pass over. This probably means more construction impact under the tracks, requiring removal of underground services.

One contact also reckoned that because Sydney authorities don’t know how to build light rail (tram lines), the whole project is (over) engineered to heavy rail standards. That might explain why on a previous visit light rail services were suspended due to a signal fault, and why the following day we encountered a tram/pedestrian crossing with signage that warned us to beware of trains.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Despite it still being light, the sun was going down, and the gloriously warm weather from the middle of the day had gone, with the temperature dropping rapidly.

Taking a somewhat roundabout route, we ended up at the Opera House, where we’d booked a tour.

Being a few minutes early we sat and people-and-seagull watched. Along the water’s edge, restaurant wait staff served a row of al fresco diners, in turn watched by a row of seagulls.

Wait staff, diners and seagulls, outside Sydney Opera House

As soon as diners left, the seagulls would move in on any leftover food.

Seagulls move in, outside Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

At the Opera House, they do a Backstage Tour taking 2.5 hours, which sounds like it might be good, but we decided a simple one hour tour of the building would suffice. It was very interesting, with our guide quite knowledgeable, and some fascinating titbits of information about the construction and history of the place.

The sun had gone down, and Circular Quay and the Bridge were looking lovely in the moonlight.

Sydney Opera House

Circular Quay, Sydney

We kept walking, first back to the hotel, then across Hyde Park to the Bodhi vegan restaurant – another recommendation – for a very tasty dinner. Meals to share that include very delicious imitations of duck and chicken. Fakeducken, you might say?

Back to the hotel. Google Fit reckoned 20,300 steps for the day. Enough walking.

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Sydney 2018 Toxic Custard newsletter

Mini-break in Sydney

Post backdated. Published 21/5/2018.

M wanted to see the Lady And The Unicorn tapestries before they head home to France from their exhibit at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

No big holiday likely this year, so how about we do a short break in Sydney?

Booking the flights

After looking at frequent flyer points on Virgin, mostly from last year’s Europe trip, we went ahead and booked.

Melbourne to Sydney up on Thursday night. Plenty of FF Economy seats available. 11,800 points. Done.

Sydney to Melbourne down on Sunday afternoon. No FF Economy seats available between about 10am (bleugh, too early) and 6pm (bleugh, too late).

Wait a sec – they have some business class seats available at 3pm. That could work. 23,500 points. M had enough, and I almost had enough – a small shortfall could be paid with $20.

Okay. M went onto the web site. Choose one of the eight available Business Class seats on the plane. Click. Booked. Great.

I went onto the web site. Click. Error. No more seats available.

Yep you guessed it — they only allowed one of the seats to be booked by Frequent Flying freeloaders. Perhaps to prevent people flying together in Business on points.

So I ended up a later flight home — 90 minutes later. Oh well. Time to sit in the lounge and write this blog.

Heading up

We planned to head to the airport straight after work.

Given the challenges of Melbourne traffic, I was thinking of opting-out of the Skybus ($18) and instead doing the cheapskate option: train to Broadmeadows, 901 bus to the Airport (effectively free, since I already have a yearly Myki Pass).

Slower? Probably; it takes about 50-60 minutes depending on the connection. But it avoids the traffic, which Skybus would be likely to get stuck in.

Checking the PTV network status shortly before leaving, the trains were running okay, but the buses… A look at the real-time departure information showed uneven frequencies, and there was a delay flagged… due to a landslide in Fitzsimons Lane in Templestowe.

Landslide affecting route 901

So we ended up on the Skybus instead, which was busy, but no waiting at all.

Have you ever noticed how when you approach Southern Cross Station from Bourke Street, the sign for Skybus, one of the things that occasional visitors are most likely to be looking for, is behind a pillar?

Southern Cross Station - Bourke Street entrance

As I suspected, Skybus was faster than via Broadmeadows, but not my much. The Citylink transit lanes should give the buses a good run, but don’t – presumably because they’re not enforced.

It took 42 minutes to get to the first stop at the airport.

No wonder Skybus no longer claim a 20 minute journey time.

Perhaps those new lanes opening soon will help… for a little while.

But really, if they have a priority transit lane, they should use it properly. Of course it doesn’t help that both Transurban (Citylink) and the Airport are lobbying against bus priority. Evidently they really want to cater for vehicles, not people.

Gate 13 at Melbourne Airport

The flight? It must have been an omen that our departure got switched to Gate 13, but at least Terminal 4 has improved in the last few years.

Delayed about half an hour, so we got into Sydney well after 9pm.

Smooth other than the delay. I got time to ponder why they give out copies of The Australian, which being a broadsheet is clearly completely unsuited to reading in a plane, at least in an Economy-class seat.

Trying to read The Australian in an Economy class seat on the plane

And the train from the airport?

Instead of a smooth 16 minutes straight from the Domestic Airport station to St James (at least as quick as a cab), due to trackwork we had to change trains at Central (up and down steps; there’s only one lift per platform), then catch a train the long way around the City Circle, so it took about half an hour all up (about as quick as a cab in peak hour).

On the bright side, the view of the Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay station is a nice welcome to Sydney.

St James station

The hotel

The hotel was a level of luxury to which I’m not really accustomed.

I usually book for location first, then price, then amenity. I like to be near to a busy railway station so we can use the hotel as a base, and stop past between activities.

There was a good deal at the Sheraton on the Park, near St James station, so we ended up there.

When I first started travelling in my 20s, I tended to stay at Youth Hostels for budgetary reasons. It’s fair to say this is the other end of the spectrum.

As we walked up, the doorman offered to help with our bags. I declined. After pulling my wheeled suitcase all the way from my house in Melbourne, I didn’t need to pay a bloke $5 to have him take it the last 25 metres to the reception desk.

That said, if the Sheraton want to remodel their front entrance, a ramp from the direction of the station would be a plus — currently the only ramp from the street faces the opposite direction.

The room itself? Very nice. As one would expect in a nominally expensive hotel.

We hadn’t booked (and paid extra for) the park view… instead it was a “city view” which turns out to be facing onto the back side of a building in the next street.

No matter. Escaping a Melbourne weather forecast of grey and drizzly, instead getting Sydney’s sun and top temperatures of 20-21 degrees every day we’d be there? Priceless.

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Europe 2017 🇬🇧🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿🇧🇪🇸🇬 Toxic Custard newsletter walking

Brussels has zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings. Could we have more too?

One of the things I found fascinating about Brussels on our recent holiday was – in contrast to Cardiff – how they’ve gone out of their way to make life easy for pedestrians.

Most striking was that there were zebra crossings. Lots and lots of zebra crossings.

Zebra crossings in Brussels

When I first spotted how many there were, I wasn’t totally sure what I was seeing, and actually warned my fellow travellers to watch and observe the locals, just in case the road markings didn’t mean what they mean in Australia. Did vehicles really have to stop for pedestrians at all these locations?

Yes. The stripes mean the same thing (except if there are traffic lights). There are just lots of zebra crossings.

Walking to the Metro in the rain, Brussels

Zebra crossings on main streets, zebra crossings on minor streets, zebra crossings on divided roads with trams in the middle, zebra crossings at intersections and mid-block.

Lots and lots of zebra crossings, and drivers observed them – perhaps because they’re so used to them.

Roundabouts? Not a problem. In Australia, these are virtually the only locations where vehicles in any direction don’t have to give way. Exceptions are rare. The Belgian roundabouts I saw had zebra crossings on all sides:

Brussels street

Two T-junctions so close together that putting zebra crossings on every side would mean three in row? Sure, go ahead. The motorists will survive:

Zebra crossings in Brussels

Generally, motor vehicles had to give way to pedestrians, but pedestrians had to give way to trams.

Zebra and tram crossing in Brussels

How much does having lots of zebra crossings affect traffic? It’s hard to say, but the cars driving around didn’t seem to be unduly held up. When I saw peak hour traffic set in, it was clear that – as anywhere else – the main thing delaying cars was other cars.

Some wider streets had traffic lights with pedestrian crossings. At many of these, you didn’t have to press a “beg” button – there was no button. The green man triggered automatically:

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

This not only tells pedestrians approaching that they don’t have to press a button to cross. It also indicates the authorities have no intention of changing it (and necessitating having a button) any time soon.

This of course is how it should be. If you’re giving the green to vehicles, why wouldn’t you also give the green to pedestrians? (More about this in another rant post soon.)

Note the signalised crossings have the same on-road markings as zebra crossings. I wonder if that helps with compliance? They’re much more obvious than the Australian dashed line markings.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

At a few spots I saw, buttons were necessary to trigger the green man. These seemed to be reasonably responsive, not making you wait too long:

Pedestrian crossing button in Brussels

In some locations, presumably those that get very busy at times, the crossings were very wide.

Pedestrian crossing in Brussels

Along with mostly wide footpaths (at least, wide enough to cope with pedestrian traffic), the design of the crossings left one with the impression that Belgian authorities would prefer you walked than drive.

It’s the sort of thing that some might not even notice, but it left an impression on me. If only Australian authorities were so inspired.

Could we do this in Australia?

Sure. But while some new zebra crossings have popped up over the last few years, they don’t seem to be routinely installed.

This spot outside Gardiner Station clearly should have been a zebra crossing:

This was almost a zebra crossing, but someone messed up. (I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. It’s now entirely a signalised crossing… which thanks to the beg button, many people ignore):

This is the newish tram stop on Collins Street at William Street. It could have had zebra crossings at the non-intersection end. But someone decided a signalised crossing was a better idea. It’s maddeningly slow to wait for if you’re crossing, and many people just cross whenever there’s a gap in the traffic:

Collins St near William St

I would think there’s also scope to place zebra crossings on side streets at intersections, particularly in suburban shopping centres.

Main road/side street intersection, Bentleigh

The law says a vehicle turning into the street gives way, but convention is often the opposite, with vehicles exiting the street often giving way instead.

And pedestrians sometimes wave stopped motorists on, when the motorist is doing the right thing and giving way. (Do me a favour: if you’re crossing and other people are too, don’t wave the car on. You might not be in any great hurry to get where you’re going, but you don’t speak for everybody else.)

Painting zebra crossings right across the side street would not just encourage walking, it would also help reduce the confusion over who’s meant to give way to whom, in what are typically high traffic (pedestrian and vehicle) areas.

Ditto car park entrances, where motorists entering and exiting are meant to give way to pedestrians.

More zebra crossings are perfectly possible. Here’s what they’ve done in Footscray. It was quiet when I took this photo, but often there are lots of pedestrians around. Somehow, the traffic still gets through:

Zebra crossings in Footscray

Potentially two-lane main roads like Centre Road and McKinnon Road could have zebra crossings too. That would be bringing it up to Belgian standards, and would be in line with the Vicroads Smartroads strategy which says it’s meant to prioritise pedestrians and buses. What would be the effect on traffic? It would be interesting to see it modelled.

Ultimately, if we prefer people walk where possible, more needs to be done to encourage it.

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Europe 2017 🇬🇧🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿🇧🇪🇸🇬 Toxic Custard newsletter transport

What I learnt about UK rail fares

My blog posts from our Britain and Belgium trip continue, but it wouldn’t be one of my holidays if I didn’t geek out on transport-related stuff.

So here’s a post on the vagaries of rail fares in Britain… or at least, what you need to know as a tourist.

Buying rail tickets at home in Victoria is easy. For most trips you don’t even buy a separate ticket, you just use a Myki card for any trip in Melbourne and as far out as the “commuter belt” cities of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour and Traralgon, and local buses and trams are included in the price.

Further afield you book a ticket with V/Line. There are some exceptions: a fare on the XPT has to be bought from NSW Trainlink, though V/Line can sell you a ticket on Great Southern Rail’s Overland for a trip within Victoria. For most of the longer trips, there’s peak and off-peak, that’s it. First Class applies on some trips, as a simple surcharge on top of the regular fare.

Britain: a bigger, more complex network

As we found during our holiday, the UK has a lot more rail operators, and a lot more ticket types.

But then, it is a much more complex and extensive network. The UK rail system is made up of dozens of operators right across the country, branded collectively as National Rail, and using the old British Rail logo, first devised in 1965.

(Urban rail systems such as London Underground and others are separate, though there is some fare integration, as some of the National Rail services double as commuter/local lines within London and other cities.)

Salisbury station - next train to...

Shared infrastructure

The many operators share tracks in many cases, as well as stations – each station has a single operator managing it on behalf of the various operators serving it.

They also share a common ticketing system (with distinctive orange tickets with magnetic stripes), and fare gates, which are installed at most stations of any significant size. (If the Brits were running V/Line, they’d have fare gates installed at all the busiest regional stations.)

The fares are a bit confusing at first.

I studied the options, as I’d shelled out for not-very-cheap airfares. (Australian school holidays + European summer = A$2500 each Melbourne to London and return, and this is unintentionally turning into a big-spending year. So I was feeling pretty budget-conscious.)

Fare pricing is set by the individual operators, and initially it seems a bit like airline pricing, though in fact it’s not quite as complicated.

On routes run by multiple operators, the main one (“the lead operator“) sets the prices, which then applies to all other trains on the same route.

Night Riviera train at Paddington Station

Britrail passes

Overseas tourists visiting Britain can get Britrail passes, covering various areas or the whole country.

There are also various other passes available to locals and visitors alike.

The passes are not cheap though, and I worked out that based on our plans, we wouldn’t save any money (and it might be more expensive) over buying individual tickets, provided most of our trips were off-peak.

Three types of tickets

The marvellous Seat61 website has a lot of detail, but it comes down to three basic types of fares:

Anytime – in other words, including peak times. Very expensive in some cases. Some commuter routes get so busy that they’ll charge through the nose to try and convince you to catch other services. (Regular commuters tend to buy season tickets covering these trips.)

Off-peak – pretty self-explanatory. Flexible in terms of which train you can catch, provided it’s outside peak times. (Some operators have another tier called Super Off-peak, which is any train at specific times. As we found out, on some routes, this doesn’t automatically mean the trains aren’t busy.)

Advance – bought before the day of travel. Discounted, but inflexible, as you’re tied to a specific train (which also means a specific operator), and you can’t get a refund or even change it after you’ve booked. Not necessarily available for all trains – unlike the other types of fare, it’s up to the individual operator to decide how many tickets to make available, and at what price.

Some routes offer first class seating, for which you’ll obviously pay a higher fare. We didn’t opt for this. Standard Class was pretty good. The only exception was a couple of trains that were very crowded, but they were shorter trains that didn’t have first class seats anyway.

Example pricing from Taunton to Penzance:

  • Anytime single £70.50
  • Off-peak single £47.30
  • Open (off-peak) return £59.10
  • Advance single £19.50 to £31.70, depending on the train
  • First Class anytime single £163.00

For most journeys during our holiday, it made no sense to buy Advance tickets. In most cases we knew where we’d want to be going, and which day, but I didn’t want us to be tied to a specific train. That’s a path to a no-fun holiday, especially remembering that most trains on the lines we were using are every half-hour, or even more frequent. “No, we can’t catch that one. We have to sit here for another 30 minutes until our train comes.”

Packed train at Bath

The only exception, where booking in advance and reserving a spot was useful for us, was the sleeper train from Penzance to London – because we knew which night we were catching it, and there was only one train to choose from, and it guaranteed a berth.

(We also booked in advance for Eurostar, but that’s a different kettle of fish entirely, more like booking airline tickets.)

So, did avoiding Advance tickets mean we missed out on the cheapest fares? Actually, mostly not. Because we were travelling always in a group of four, and almost all our trips were on Great Western Railway, we were able to make use of GWR’s GroupSave discount… not all operators have it, but on those that do, for groups of 3-9 people, it reduces prices by a third, bringing normal Off-Peak fares down to about the same price as Advance fares.

Train ticket from Cardiff to Bath, and a water bottle from home

Single vs Return

Return tickets (including “open return”, where you come back on a different day) are usually only a bit more expensive than a single fare. The return trip isn’t tied to a specific train, though it may exclude peak times.

For our trip it was almost all single fares, but it’s useful if you’re doing some backtracking.

Multi-operator trips

While all train operators sell tickets for all the other operators, and they share ticketing infrastructure so that for instance all tickets work in all fare gates, the fares themselves are often not integrated.

If your journey includes two “lead” operators, it appears you’ll pay the cost of the two individual legs, simply added together. This makes it more expensive than if both legs were on one operator. As with local buses, I would expect this is a disincentive to use the trains for some trips.

Speaking of buses, there is some fare integration, with a scheme called PlusBus which gets you a discounted local bus pass with your train ticket. For trips to London you can also get a discounted London Travelcard. Both of these only apply on the same day as your train trip.

Trains at Paddington Station

How to buy

Buying fares online is possible, and you can then collect the tickets at a vending machine – a good option for tourists. One limitation of this is won’t let you buy online less than an hour before the train is due.

All the train operator web sites will sell you a ticket, including for any other operator. There are other web sites that have extra smarts for looking for cheap deals, but some of them also add small surcharges.

You can also buy tickets at the vending machines of course. A downside of this is that most of the machines can’t handle the GroupSave deal.

So in most cases I ended up buying tickets just before travel, from the booking office – which is something you’d think they’d want to discourage, but for us it was the easiest way. (To be fair, they’re upgrading the vending machines to handle GroupSave.)

To their credit, the operators of the stations involved always seemed to have plenty of staff in the booking offices. I never waited more than a couple of minutes, and the people on duty were all very helpful – and knew about the GroupSave discount, even at Cardiff Station which is run by a different Train Operating Company (Arriva) than the one we were booking for (GWR), though Arriva have a similar deal with a different name (Small Group Day Ticket).

One side effect of GroupSave only being valid on certain operators: in some cases you can only catch a train run by that operator. We did a trip from Bath to Taunton (via Bristol Temple Meads). The discount was only valid on GWR trains, not other trains on that route run by CrossCountry.

Salisbury station

A to B, B to C

Still reading? Okay. Finally, here’s a neat moneysaver.

Seat61 notes that in some cases it’s cheaper to buy two tickets for a single trip. It’s a quirk of the pricing system.

In most cases I didn’t look into this option, but I did check for one trip from Taunton to Penzance, which involved changing trains along the way at either Par or Exeter St David’s. It turned out to be quite a bit cheaper to buy separate tickets for each leg of the trip.

This we did by exiting the station at Exeter, buying fresh tickets and then going back in again. But if you have bought the tickets in advance, there’s no need to even do that. In fact you don’t even need to hop off the train; you just need to be on a train that stops at the relevant station.

Apart from buying the second lot of tickets, we were also able to use the 20ish minutes at Exeter to buy some lunch, though we didn’t venture out of the station as it was pouring with rain at the time.

How much did we save?

  • Taunton to Penzance is £31.20 each, if you include the GroupSave discount (change at Par or Exeter St David’s. Some combinations of trains were up to £47.30 each)
  • Taunton to Exeter St David’s £7.75 each + Exeter St David’s to Penzance £13.85 each = total £21.60 (includes the GroupSave discount)

So in our case, booking the full trip for the four of us would have been £124.80 total including GroupSave. Buying it in two parts ended up costing us £86.40 total. A saving of £38.40, or about A$62, about 30% of the fare. And we got to step outside the station gates and buy sandwiches, which I believe we technically couldn’t have done if making the trip on one ticket.

Worth our while.

Cardiff station sign

Would we want this complexity here?

You can see some advantages to the British way of doing things. Cheap advance discount fares encourages patronage and gives the operators some certainty over who will turn up. GroupSave and other discount schemes make it more affordable for groups to use public transport.

But it is quite complicated for passengers to understand. And return tickets only being slightly more expensive than singles, well that’s a bit odd given it costs a rail company twice as much to carry you on two trips.

And UK pricing is completely illogical in some cases — in part thanks to the myriad of operators all applying their own commercial decisions to their pricing.

We’ve got our quirks too of course, but the key is keeping it simple for passengers, and ensuring that there’s a good return to operators (and government) as extra services are added, to encourage further investment.

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Crossing the street in Cardiff is an exercise in frustration

I wanted to reflect on something from our recent visit to Cardiff.

Some of central Cardiff is pedestrianised, which is great. Many other areas have nice wide footpaths.

It would be near-perfect for walking… if at most intersections the traffic lights weren’t designed to be so pedestrian hostile.

It’s as if the traffic engineers either hate pedestrians, or have done everything they can to theoretically prevent car and pedestrian accidents.

But in the process they’ve created an environment where people have to wait for so long to cross the street that jaywalking is widespread.

Cardiff staggered pedestrian crossing

Beg button x 2

What’s the only thing worse than waiting for a traffic light to cross the street? Waiting for two traffic lights to cross the street!

In Cardiff, many intersections have traffic islands, and the pedestrian crossings have all been designed to be staggered, with the lights programmed to give a green man at different times.

Rule 28 of the UK Highway Code says:

When the crossings on each side of the central refuge are not in line they are two separate crossings. On reaching the central island, press the button again and wait for a steady green figure.

The proliferation of this design in Cardiff means that at most spots as you cross the street, provided you obey the green/red man, you have to wait twice, and the way these are implemented, the wait is often for an extended period of time — even when there’s no traffic coming.

I suspect it’s used to minimise accidents caused by inattentive drivers:

  • For instance at a three-way (T) junction, you might have a three part cycle with each road having equal green time.
  • Then you fit the pedestrian cycles around it: on any one of the three roads, two-thirds of the time, people can cross in front of the stopped cars.
  • Only when those cars get a green can you cross the rest of that road. So you’ll never make it across the entire road in one go.

They’ve set up similar programming at many four way intersections.

Yes, it theoretically cuts vehicle conflicts with other vehicles and pedestrians, and probably maximises vehicle throughput where there are a lot of turning vehicles.

But should that be the top priority in a dense city centre?


Pic from Google Streetview — On the main road from Cardiff city centre to Cardiff Bay. The pedestrian light nearest the camera is red; the other one is green.

This setup is beyond irritating when you’re trying to walk around. Often there will be a long wait for two separate green men despite there being little or no traffic.

It’s a very poor experience for pedestrians, and does nothing to encourage walking.

Thankfully such a design is rare in Australia. The only time you’re unlikely to get all the way across a divided road is if you’re not a fast walker, and you’re at a very wide road, perhaps 4+ lanes each way plus a wide median.

Traffic light design

Apart from how they’re programmed, some of the traffic lights have their green man display not on the opposite side where it’s easily seen, but on a display next to the button.

This is quite low down and can be difficult to view when other people are waiting.

Cardiff pedestrian signal mounted on pole

It’s also completely counter-intuitive to watch for a light that’s off to your side, rather than in the direction you’re wanting to go.

Combined with many traffic lights not having audible prompts (near-universal in Australia), this leads to people not even noticing when the traffic light eventually allows them to go.

Not all the crossings in Cardiff had this design. It’s not clear to me whether this is the new standard, or one of several standards, depending on context. We saw them elsewhere in Britain, though I don’t recall seeing any in London.

(See an example, with an additional indicator further up the pole, outside Cardiff Castle.)

Outcomes?

In this kind of walking environment, it quickly became apparent that many of the locals jaywalk regularly – and I can’t say I blame them. It was positively painful walking around and obeying all the traffic lights.

Widespread jaywalking means that the safety benefit (if indeed that was the motivation for these designs) is completely undermined.

I saw similar issues elsewhere in the UK, but to nowhere near the degree they’ve done this in Cardiff.

I don’t know the history of this, and whether there have been objections from the locals – I searched online a bit, didn’t find anything.

It’s unlikely it would ever happen, but if I ever end up living and working in Cardiff, I think I’ve found my first advocacy campaign.

Cardiff is a lovely city. But it treats its pedestrians with contempt.

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I’m back!

Just back (yesterday) from a three week trip to the UK and Belgium.

Apart from seeing family, we visited Cardiff, Bath, Penzance, Brussels and London.

In summary? Had a great time!

As you can see, I’m really delighted to be back:

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff

Expect lots of overly-detailed blog posts in the next few weeks…

Use this link to see them all in chronological order*, or start here:

*When reading the posts in chronological (that is, forwards) order, you counter-intuitively click the “Older Posts” link for the next page, which in fact is newer posts.