A few months ago I read the excellent book "Pies and Prejudice" by Stuart Maconie, and realised there were great swathes of the north of England which were foreign to me. One of those places was Manchester and I decided there and then I was going to right this wrong and pay a visit.
I live in Edinburgh and the best option for getting there was the train, and since December 2007, Transpennine Express have held the franchise for trains from Scotland to Manchester so it was with Transpennine Express that I made my booking.
They have a website which I decided to use as booking with them was marginally cheaper than using the Trainline, however the experience wasn't particularly easy. I booked saver tickets to allow a certain amount of flexibility but chose one train which required a change at Preston for the outward journey and a direct train for my return.
I made the booking having requested seats be booked and awaited a confirmation e-mail from Transpennine Express - but this never arrived. Instead I received an e-mail a day or two later informing me that my tickets had been dispatched.
When the tickets arrived I realised that Transpennine Express had merely sent me tickets - with no seat reservations at all. This was a major problem for me as my daughter is autistic and travelling with her without a seat leads to more problems than I care to mention.
I live quite near a major rail station so I headed down there to see about seat reservations only to be told my original outward train was now full and I would have to take the slightly later direct train operated by Transpennine Express. The return journey on another direct train was still available to book.
So be a little wary when booking directly from the Transpennine Express website - there seems to be issues with it.
We arrived in good time for our train and were pleased to see it pull in on time. I am used to travelling by rail to London and was quite surprised at how small the train was. Our booked seats were exactly where we were told they would be and we had a table which gave us plenty of room.
The trains also do not have a buffet car, so my advice if you are travelling long distance with them is to ensure you have plenty of food before you board. There is a trolley service but the choice is somewhat limited.
The train made good progress to Carlisle and then ground to a halt as we awaited the train travelling from Glasgow to join us so that both trains could be coupled together for the remainder of the journey. This took a good 15-20 minutes and this is shown in the timetable.
The train started to get very busy south of Carlisle - it goes through the Lake District and many backpackers got on at Oxendale and Penrith and we were pleased we had reserved seats.
The train continued its journey south and at Preston there was yet another timetabled delay - I am unsure exactly what that was for but we sat at the station for 15 minutes with no explanation why.
The train finally pulled into Manchester Piccadilly on time, 4 hours after we left Edinburgh. These trains do not use the "terminus" front part of Manchester Piccadilly station - they utilise platforms to the rear which are higher up so be warned if you have a lot of luggage you will need to use lifts to exit these platforms and there is a bit of a walk to the exit.
We arrived at Manchester Piccadilly for our direct return train service to find the platform very busy with people waiting for the train. We had seats reserved so felt confident all would go well.
However there was suddenly an announcement informing passengers travelling north of Carlisle that they would have to go to a different platform and take a train going to Middlesborough and change at York for a train to Edinburgh.
I was appalled - no explanation was offered as to why this had happened and no apology was given either. This affected many passengers, including a woman with a baby who informed me this wasn't the first time this had happened to her. It was a Friday afternoon which meant there were more people travelling than usual too.
We went down to the platform to find our train and found Transpennine Express staff to be thin on the ground. Eventually we boarded our train, being lucky to find free seats. The train was packed solid and while it was pleasant to go through some of the lovely scenery of the Pennines, it was also worrying to think we had to board a train at York without seat reservations.
The guard onboard the Transpennine Express train eventually made an announcement informing us there were 3 trains leaving from York to Edinburgh within a 35 minute time frame, which was slightly reassuring but he bodged the announcement regarding the platform numbers, sending some passengers on a wild goose chase when they arrived at York for the want of saying they merely had to remain on the same platform the Transpennine Express train came in on.
We did finally manage to board a train to Edinburgh - the third one which came in - and were very lucky to get seats. All three of these trains were very busy and of course were not operated by Transpennine Express so they had absolved themselves of any responsibility by that time.
The remainder of my journey was smooth (if crowded!) but no thanks to Transpennine Express.
This is the first time I have ever had a train cancelled or delayed without any explanation whatsoever and the staff when queried were as much in the dark as the customers.
As a result this experience has really put me off using the Transpennine Express again in the future - from the booking experience going wrong to the timetabled delays in the journeys and finally the unexplained cancellation - it just seems that the company might just have bitten off more than they can chew.
I am sad that it came to this because I had such high hopes for my journey south with them but sadly they need to iron out problems both with the website and the actual service. I will consider using Transpennine Express again for the convenience of a direct train to Manchester - assuming of course they can actually get their finger out and provide one!
First Transpenine Express is the mainly local train company for the North covering the area including Middlesborough, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, York and Durham. They have however recently started covering Scotland, mainly Edinburgh and Glasgow.
I have used First Transpenine Express regularly for a large number of years, this has mainly been sort journeys, primarily from Huddersfield to Leeds/York/Manchester. The trains are on time and reasonably priced.
I have used the online timetabling to see what time the trains are for the next day and this has always been correct so I've had no problems with regards to this, their prices have always been correct too.
First Transpenine Express have an excellent deal for those with a Young Persons (16-25) railcard where you can pre-purchase tickets up to 6pm the day before travel and you get a VERY good discount, typically half the normal student fare. You do have to travel off peak and on the trains that you book but you do get a reserved seat and save a decent amount of money. I have used this many times, often booking just the day before travel and there's always been good availability.
I recently used First Transpenine Express to book a student ticket to York and also a ticket down to Stevenage. I experienced two problems with these two bookings, both of which were quite annoying. The first was on the booking to York, I completed the purchase and the screen showed my fast ticket reference, I don't normally write this down I normally just wait for the email. However, for whatever reason I wrote it down and good job I did as the email never arrived. I have emailed FTPE to complain about this but haven't had a relpy and this was nearly two months ago. The second problem was a ticket to Stevenage, it told me online that I was to change at Leeds, yet when the ticket came it was to change at Wakefield, not a huge problem but just a good job I checked the tickets properly.
All in all despite these two minor problems I must say that I am very impressed with FTPE and can't really fault them.
First TransPennine Express is a train company that strives to offer a fast, frequent and superior experience. An investment programme of over £260m is currently under way bringing high-quality intercity rolling stock, new depots and substantial improvements to our 30 stations and most importantly through the development of our people.