Friday, December 09, 2016

Train guide and tips: Crewe to London

If you know me reasonably well, you probably know that I travel on trains a lot, often with no reason other than to travel on the trains in the first place (no I'm not a train spotter, I just like visiting new places and train travel is awesome). Living in Crewe, I can take trains going in all directions and get to places with few to no changes. One of these locations is London.

Crewe is one of the few places in the UK to actually have more than one train operator with services to London. In Crewe's case, Virgin Trains and London Midland (you could change at Birmingham onto Chiltern Railways, but I'll get on to that later). This means there's some degree of competition. You can get yourself a bargain if you know what you're doing and it doesn't even have to be complicated. However, you need to know the differences between the two before you can confidently say "this is a bargain". I've also got a few tips on how to spend a little more for additional comfort, but still retain a bargain.

The Differences

Virgin Trains vs London Midland

I'm covering the differences between the two companies first because that's really important before looking at prices. If all you care about is cost, then scroll down and don't say I didn't warn you.


Virgin Trains is faster. Mostly. Kinda. Virgin Trains is often praised for running at 125mph, however that's not the whole story. There's several issues with this ideal. Firstly, there are two different routes into London from Crewe that Virgin take: via Nuneaton (not necessarily stopping there) and via Birmingham. The latter came into play when Virgin connected up the services from Scotland that terminated at Birmingham and the services from London that terminated at Birmingham, leading to Scotland to London VIA Birmingham services instead. Going through Birmingham is very slow to the point of adding on an additional 45-60 minutes compared to other, similar Virgin services that go down the Trent Valley Line (where Nuneaton is). Here's some example times (correct at time of writing):

Train 1 - Virgin via Rugby (1 hour 44 minutes):
07:57 Crewe
08:47 Rugby
09:41 London Euston

Train 2 - Virgin via Birmingham (2 hours 31 minutes):
08:01 Crewe
08:45 Wolverhampton
08:55 Sandwell and Dudley
09:10 Birmingham New Street
09:20 Birmingham International
09:31 Coventry
10:00 Milton Keynes Central
10:32 London Euston

A difference of 47 minutes! First thing you notice is the higher number of stations called at. Some of which have long waits. In total, 21 minutes of the journey is waiting at stations, though 13 of those are at Wolverhampton. Plus, with more stations, speeding up and slowing down more often means a longer journey time too.

The two trains above are examples only, and journey times vary depending on which stations are called at. The quickest journey I can see at the moment is 1 hour 36 minutes which is an express from Crewe to London Euston, not calling at any other stations. There are several at one minute longer that stops also at Stafford.

One final thing, there are only parts of the West Coast Main Line where Virgin's trains are allowed to go the full 125mph. Always check the actual journey times first.

RIGHT, next up we have London Midland, previously known as Central Trains I believe (before my time I think). London Midland are slower than Virgin. Kinda. Actually, London Midland worked on what is known as "Project 110", allowing their new Desiro electric trains to travel at 110mph on sections of track, only 15mph less than their red cousins over at Virgin. However, much like Virgin via Birmingham, London Midland stop at LOADS of stations. Here's a sample train:

Train 3 - London Midland (2 hours 48 minutes)
Crewe 09:02
Alsager 09:11
Kidsgrove 09:15
Stoke On Trent 09:28
Stone (Staffs) 09:36
Stafford 09:56
Rugeley Trent Valley 10:05
Lichfield Trent Valley 10:13
Tamworth 10:20
Atherstone (Warks) 10:28
Nuneaton 10:36
Rugby 10:53
Milton Keynes Central 11:15
London Euston 11:50

Just to put that in perspective, that's 17 minutes longer than travelling with Virgin via Birmingham, but 1 hour longer than via Rugby (or more if you pick the even quicker services). Again, speeding up and slowing down takes time. However, because the London Midland trains are shorter than Virgin's, they can do that a lot quicker and also have much shorter dwell times, where some stations even have less than a minute stop before moving on again, compared to a minimum stop of at least a minute for Virgin.

Please be warned though that at weekends and early mornings, London Midland services to London are slower at a maximum of 100mph and sometimes go via Birmingham too. Combining London Midland AND via Birmingham results in a service of 3 hours 31 minutes (I believe the only service where this happens is the 06:47 from Crewe, and a non-Birmingham one leaves 5 minutes later and is amusingly cheaper than via Birmingham).

And now it's time for a


There are two routes to Stafford from Crewe. The direct route (no stations on the way) or the slow route (via Alsager, Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent and Stone). If you want to go to Stafford, you almost always want to get the direct train as it takes 20 minutes rather than 47. The London Midland trains from Crewe to London go via Stoke, so take longer to get to Stafford. Well why not meet it there?

London Midland run trains from Crewe to Birmingham as well as the Crewe to London trains. If you have a Crewe to London "via London Midland only" ticket, you can save a fair bit of time off your journey if you intentionally "miss" the London train and take the next train to Birmingham that calls at Stafford. The Birmingham trains typically leave Crewe 17 minutes after the London service, and arrives in Stafford 15 minutes before the London one even arrives there, giving you plenty of time to get to the other platform. Here's an example:

Crewe - London (London Midland) leaves Crewe at 11:02. You miss this one.
Crewe - Birmingham (London Midland) leaves Crewe at 11:19.
It arrives at Stafford at 11:39

The Crewe - London train leaves Stafford at 11:56, giving you 17 minutes to change platform (Stafford station isn't huge, so that's plenty of time).
Congratulations, you saved 17 minutes off your journey. You will arrive in London at 13:50, giving a total time from Crewe to London of 2 hours 31 minutes, less time than Virgin via Birmingham.

IMPORTANT: If your ticket says "London Midland only", you can't use a Virgin service from Crewe to Stafford or, indeed, at any point in your journey. Additionally, if your ticket is an advance ticket and it tells you to use the earlier service via Stoke, you MUST go via Stoke as otherwise your ticket isn't valid.

ONE OTHER THING: By essentially skipping all stations from Crewe to Stafford, you will find the train is more busy and you may find it harder finding a seat compared to joining the train at Crewe. Something to keep in mind.

That's it for speed I think. Those are the four basic routes to consider, with timings varying slightly. I'll come onto pricing later.
1) Virgin direct
2) Virgin via Birmingham
3) London Midland via Stoke
4) London Midland changing at Stafford

Officially, you can take a route via Reading to arrive in London at Paddington station, but this isn't a common route, is only valid using the "any route permitted" ticket that Virgin use, and is also slower. You'd also risk having to argue your case to conductors and gate attendents, though they should know these things. It is actually cheaper and valid to use a Crewe to London any permitted ticket to get to Reading than a Crewe to Reading ticket. The former ticket allows break of journey, so you can leave the train at Reading without issue (though you do have to explain to the gate operator that you are breaking your journey there). Unless the timings tie into a meeting you have near Paddington, or you want to go to Reading, specifically or on the way, then I wouldn't bother.

Seats and General Comfort

This is where things might start to get a bit subjective, but I'll do my best.

First off, there's something very important to be aware of: Virgin have TWO different types of train: . The "Pendolinos" (or Class 390) are electric ONLY and are either 9 or 11 coaches long. The "Super Voyagers" are diesel-electric and have 5 coaches, though often there's two connected together to make a 10 coach train, which sometimes join/detach part-way (more on this shortly).

Seats, the most important part. In terms of comfort, they're okay until someone sits next to you. Then it gets very cramped. Legroom is also quite poor and, amusingly, I feel there's more legroom in non-table seats than the table seats, assuming there's someone in front of you, otherwise stretch out; that space is yours, congratulations! Amusingly, I feel there's more legroom on London Midland trains and they're less cramped too. Of course, more room in all directions in first class.

Power sockets! Everyone loves them and there's never enough of them. London Midland have them in first class ONLY except for a small number of their most recent trains, so make sure you've got plenty of battery. Virgin Pendolinos, however, have them at every table by the window* seats (so there's two sockets for every table). If you're on a Super Voyager however, there's a power socket at EVERY window* seat.


As I mentioned, Super Voyagers have power sockets at every window* seat. Therefore, if you're travelling between two locations that get both Pendolinos and Super Voyagers, you're more likely to find a power socket free on a Super Voyager. Virgin have a tendency to mix and match Pendolinos and Voyagers on their London to Scotland routes, while services to Liverpool and Manchester are consistently Pendolinos (I think). The only routes guaranteed to be Super Voyagers are those that aren't electrified: Chester, North Wales (Holyhead, Bangor, Llandudno Junction), Shrewsbury and Blackpool. So if you're given a choice of Virgin services, check the final destination if you want an extra chance of getting a power socket.

HOLD UP, why are you adding an asterisk next to "window"?

Virgin Pendolinos and Super Voyagers are notorious for having terrible seat alignment with windows. In many seats, you just end up looking at a wall (perhaps "wall seat" would be more appropriate?). If you want to enjoy the view (and there's some nice views on the Trent Valley Line) then London Midland's trains are much better.

Food and Drink

There's a rather pricey shop on-board Virgin Trains and nothing on London Midland. If you want anything more than a microwaved burger or a cold sandwich, you'll need to be first class. Nothing comes free with a standard class ticket though, so I'm gonna assume you'll be sensible and buy from the station or a nearby shop instead.

Number of Seats and Getting a Seat

Here's where it gets a bit complicated, so I'll try to break this down.

9 coach Virgin Pendolino carries 294 standard class seats and 145 first class seats. Add an extra 92 standard class seats for 11 coach train.
As standard on a 5 coach Super Voyager, there's 178 standard class seats and 26 first class seats. However, that only accounts for four of the coaches. There is one coach that can be used as *either* standard or first class. There's 52 seats in this coach. Double those numbers for doubled up Voyagers.

The number of seats in a standard 4 coach London Midland train is 210 standard class and 19 first class (according to Wikipedia). That's across 4 coaches (first class on LM is a compartment in the middle of the train. Occasionally, London Midland double up their 350s and split them part-way. For example, I was on a train that was 8 coaches from London to Northampton, then the front four coaches went to Crewe while the rear 4 coaches terminated there and became a train back to London. However, London Midland are now using 8 car trains on select services from Crewe. Due to length of platforms, these don't call at Alsager, Kidsgrove and some others, but gives double the number of seats.

In terms of actually getting a seat, this is also a bit complicated. Advance tickets are cheap tickets that are ONLY valid on pre-set train(s). As such, you are required to get a reservation with it. On Virgin, that means you are assigned a seat, so you can kick up a fuss if someone sits in your seat (and you should by the way. On London Midland, they have a number that they think they can get away with and sell up to that number, but don't assign actual seats, so you may turn up to find a standing-room-only train even if you've pre-booked it. That being said, I've never had this happen, and due to the number of stops, people get off and on regularly so you are unlikely to be standing for very long in my opinion.

Saving Money and Making the Most of Your Money

Hello again. There's a high chance you didn't read past the first section and skipped right here. That's fine. Wanting to save money is natural, but trust me: just plumping for the cheapest tickets is dangerous as you might get angry and then take it out on the wrong people (95% of complaints that the train companies get isn't their fault. That isn't an accurate statistic, but when you understand the industry and you look at what people complain to the train companies about, you feel sorry for them having to deal with the general public who don't know any better). Anyway, read on for money saving tips, which is what you really care about.

Ticket Types

Let's get the main one out the way. First off, understand the different types of tickets available. Here's a brief summary:

Advance (cheapest, not flexible): Valid only on the train(s) you booked for so must be booked in advance and are not refundable. If you miss your train and it's your own fault and you can't persuade a staff member to let it slide, you're gonna need to buy a new ticket at a higher price than advance tickets.
Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak (cheap, flexible with restrictions): Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak are tickets that allow you to use any train to make your journey provided they don't fall within the ticket restrictions, typically time-based. Restrictions vary drastically depending on start and end point and the times you want to travel. Remember though: restrictions are set by the ticket, not the train. There are no such thing as "peak trains" or "off-peak trains", though those terms are often used in areas such as London and, even if your off-peak ticket is valid at, say, 8am, the guard might give you a hard time about it if it's an uncommon one. Some tickets have afternoon peak times, others do not. Tickets may also limit you to certain operators to be cheaper. For example, the cheapest non-advance ticket from Crewe to London is a London Midland only Super Off-Peak ticket. This ticket restrictions say you must not arrive in London Euston before 13:00 Monday to Saturday (no restriction on Sunday).
Anytime (most expensive, very flexible): Any train basically. Again, there is a cheaper anytime ticket for London Midland only.

First class tickets are...well...something else. I'll get to that.

Splitting tickets (ugh)

This has been talked about a bit in the news and whatever. They're more common when passing through different passenger transport authorities on slower routes with more stations. Routes into London are the most scrutinised for loopholes like this anyway, so you're lucky to find them. You may find some by mixing and matching flexible and advance tickets, but this gets quite complicated. The best site I can recommend is who can run searches for split tickets, but the system isn't the best and they take a cut of the saving you make rather than charging card fees, etc, which neatly brings me on to.

Buying Tickets

There's a few good pointers here. First off, there are two different types of websites selling UK train tickets: first party (i.e. run by the rail companies like Virgin or London Midland) and third party (stand-alone companies that don't do anything else, e.g. The Trainline and RailEasy). I would never use third party websites to buy tickets for many reasons, but the main one is they CHARGE FEES! All the websites use the same database with the same ticket prices and same advance ticket booking engines, so no matter where you buy a particular ticket, it will be the same price on all the sites. The extra charges are either transaction fees, card fees, booking fees, postage fees, etc.

So, to save on charges, you choose a train operator's website (you can use any train operator as they all have to have all tickets and stations. You could use the Northern Railway site to book a South Eastern Railway ticket if you really wished). Some sites offer Nectar points now (such as Virgin) so that might be something worth considering.

One final thing to do before buying your tickets is to see if there's any offers going on for the train operator you're going to be using. Check Virgin's and London Midland's sites to see if they have any special offers on. In contrast to standard fares, promotions will often only work on the operator's own site. My recommendation would be to sign up for newsletters on the operator(s) sites you plan to use and keep an eye out for offers on their sites. I also feel like I started getting more offers from certain train operators after I bought tickets from them, particularly the "we haven't seen you in a while, here's £5 off when you buy a £50 ticket" and things like that. Apart from that, choose whichever site you feel most comfortable using.

While buying your tickets, you will be asked how you would like to get the tickets. Some operators let you get them sent by email or to a phone, but the human wall upon the approach to barriers at stations makes it nearly impossible to get through and I wouldn't want to be waving a phone around for that, so I always prefer to get proper tickets. Getting them sent by post costs money, however it's free to get them set up in a central booking system for picking up at the station ticket machines. They offer a "collect tickets" option where you insert the same card used to book the tickets, enter the code you're given at the end of the booking process and you get your train tickets printed there and then.

Short version:
1) Sign up to newsletters on the sites for the operators you travel with to get special offers
2) Never use a 3rd party site. Always use a train operator's booking engine to avoid fees.
3) Collect at the station to avoid postage fees and headaches at the barriers.

Additional note: Get a railcard. In some cases, it can make the money back in a single journey (if you need to travel at peak time, you could probably save £30 in a single ticket). There's 7 national railcards (6 available on that link, plus the HM Forces railcard) and they give you 1/3 off fares providing you meet the criteria. However, they do not work on open first class fares. They do, however, work on ADVANCE first class fares, so you can get yourself a bargain first class journey. Virgin no longer let railcard users use off peak tickets at peak time.

Pay a Bit More and Get a Lot More

First class can be super expensive, but not if you book in advance. Advance tickets are available for both standard class and first class tickets. Sometimes, advance tickets for first class are cheaper than standard class (when standard class is running out typically) or are not much more. First class on London Midland gets you a reclining, more comfy chair and a power socket. Right now, for a ticket in two weeks time, advance tickets are going for only £10 more each way. In my opinion, that's worth £10. At weekends, you can upgrade on Virgin Trains for £15 each way and London Midland for £10, or £15 for a return. Honestly, for the legroom and general room on Virgin, that's totally worth it. You do get some snacks and stuff on Virgin too, but it's a much milder affair compared to weekdays.

Let's talk about Chiltern Railways

Not exactly a famous train operator to many round here, but there's a third operator serving Birmingham to London in addition to Virgin and London Midland. Chiltern Railways have their own route through Warwick and Banbury to London Marylebone. Their pricing is about halfway between Virgin and London Midland, and their journey times follow suit. However, that's all well and good if you start your journey at Birmingham. Where does Crewe come in?

Well, the "any permitted" tickets allow you to change at Birmingham, walk the 10 minutes from New Street to Moor Street, and then get on a train there. For the most part, it's going to be a longer journey than directly from Crewe to London with Virgin. Potentially a little quicker than London Midland, but you're paying for the Virgin ticket, so why bother? Well, Chiltern have a few different kinds of trains. A handful of their trains each day are their locomotive hauled "silver trains". The standard class seats on this train are the nicest standard seating on any train in the UK. Also, they have one carriage that is something special: The Business Zone carriage. For £10 (off peak, any day of the week), you can upgrade to this carriage for even better seats (the best seats on National Rail) and tea & coffee. Also, all seats have large tables and loads of legroom. Seriously, this is worth trying at least once.

That's all well and good, but how much would this set me back, both in time and money?

To be honest, this is gonna vary drastically due to the timings of off peak and/or super off peak being wildly different between operators and are also subject to change. Here's a general example.

You want to leave Crewe after 9am on a Friday and want to get to London. Here's your best options for all three operators, avoiding the steep "anytime" fares:
Option 1) Virgin Train leaving Crewe at 09:01 and arriving into London at 11:34. This is a slower Virgin train as it goes through Birmingham, but is the first train you can take that lets you use the off peak ticket from Crewe (must arrive in London after 11:29). Time: 2 hours 33 mins. However, you can get a later, but faster, train at 09:56 getting you into London at 11:39. A few minutes later than the slower one, but you can leave much later. Cost: £75.30. Time: 1 hour 43 mins.

Option 2) London Midland leaving Crewe at 09:02 and arriving into London at 11:50. London Midland's standard off peak ticket lets you arrive in London after 10:00, so you can take this train, or even an earlier one! As mentioned, you can leave Crewe slightly later at 09:19 on a different London Midland train and change at Stafford, meeting the earlier London train at 09:44. Cost: £39.00. Time: 2 hours 48 mins. Reduced to 2 hours 31 minutes by changing at Stafford.

Option 3) Take the 09:19 London Midland train to Birmingham New Street arriving at 10:18, make your way to Birmingham Moor Street (takes about 10 minutes to walk I reckon, but less when you get used to it) and then get the Chiltern Railways train at 10:55, arriving in London at 12:44. This train is one of the silver trains usually and has the super comfy Business Zone you can upgrade to for £10. Chiltern's off peak tickets let you arrive after 10:05, while super off peak tickets allow you to arrive after 11:30am, so you can get an even cheaper super off peak ticket!
Cost Breakdown:
Crewe to Birmingham off peak: £26.30
Birmingham to London (via High Wycombe) SUPER off peak: £29.20
Business Zone upgrade (optional): £10 each way.
Total: £55.50 plus business upgrades
Time: 3 hours 25 minutes.

Yes, changing at Birmingham is a bit longer than either of the other routes. You do get half an hour not-on-a-train in Birmingham though, so you could grab something to eat on the walk between stations.

Something worth mentioning is that all prices mentioned are A) subject to change, and B) walk-up tickets. These are tickets where you can get the ticket on the day and then take any train based on the restrictions of the ticket. It's not a case of "miss the train, you need a new ticket". This is an extra bonus for the Chiltern route, as you buy two separate tickets. You could spend more time in Birmingham or even, as it's a month-long return, spend a few days in Birmingham and then carry on to London, etc. Things like that.

This is the way I see it.
Speed: Virgin Trains.
Cheap: London Midland.
Comfort: Chiltern Railways.

There is a 4th option which involves getting a train to Birmingham, changing onto a CrossCountry train to Reading and then changing onto a GWR train to London Paddington. This costs the same as the standard Virgin Crewe to London ticket, but takes much longer. However, it's cheaper to buy a Crewe to London ticket than a Crewe to Reading ticket, so this route is useful for going to Reading, and that's about it.

I think that covers everything about Crewe to London. I go to London semi-regularly, so this is all info I have in my head, save for specific times and prices, both of which are subject to change. To be honest, this is only really useful if you don't like advance tickets and getting tied to a specific train. Shows you there's other options out there, and also ways for a more interesting journey, even if it takes longer.

Any errors (except timings and prices, cos those will change all the time) let me know.

Monday, December 05, 2016

What is the difference between IMAX and iSense?

This isn't something made clear by Odeon on their website, so I'm going to explain it both simply and extensively.

Simple explanation: IMAX is a branded and marketed product with absolutely massive screens, iSense is Odeon's own brand and creation to create something similar with industry standard equipment that doesn't have "IMAX" written on it. For most people, there won't be much in it, though the selection of films available for each will vary (i.e. some films made for IMAX may not be in iSense, and the other way around. iSense screens are large, but not IMAX large.

Long explantion: When you see a film trailer, you will never hear "see it in iSense", but you may hear "see it in IMAX". That's because IMAX is an international brand that has a finger in every filmy pie from cameras to cinemas. I won't go into the film production side, but that's quite interesting. Instead, I'll focus on the cinema side.

IMAX, as a brand, has strict rules on how screens marketed as "IMAX" screens operate and behave in order to maintain consistency between cinemas (including different cinema chains, as it's not just Odeon with IMAX screens, e.g. the Cineworld in Ashton-under-Lyme and the Vue in Cheshire Oaks).

IMAX Digital screens have two IMAX-branded 2K projectors projecting onto the screen at once, IMAX Sonics sound systems, IMAX get the idea. Everything is branded and comes from one place. "proper" original IMAX is film-based and is usually one film projector rather than two digital projectors. There's not many of these in the country any more, and most films don't make film prints any more, so digital projectors are also used in these cinemas, and a rail system is used to swap the projectors around.

iSense, however, is Odeon's way of having a similar experience to IMAX, but without the costs of getting all the branded equipment and maintaining it to the level IMAX wants, which makes it more cost-efficient for smaller cinemas. iSense uses industry standard equipment, such as a single 4K projector and Dolby audio. It's still a "large screen experience" (i.e. a floor to ceiling screen thing), just with different equipment. However, this isn't the end of the story.

IMAX screens can only show films that are "made for IMAX". In other words, you can't show any random film made in super high resolution. iSense, on the other hand, doesn't have those restrictions. If a film is made in 4K, it can show it, as the only people they have to answer to is Odeon themselves. This means that the films shown in iSense can be much more varied than those in IMAX. Pretty sure somewhere was showing Bridget Jones's Baby in iSense, while IMAX wouldn't touch that with a 10 foot barge pole (not enough action and explosions I reckon). A quick check on Odeon's website, and they're currently listing the following films as showing in iSense and not IMAX: Moana, Passengers, Sing and Arrival. Moana I would definitely like to see at 4K, as that film already looked great on a standard film screen.

Here's something interesting. IMAX Digital, with two 2K projectors, creates an image at a percieved 2.9K, not 4K. This means that, in theory, iSense will have a better picture quality at a constant 4K. Of course, original IMAX with 70mm screen is a theoretical 12K (I say theoretical as it's film, not digital, so not measured in pixels). It does depend how the film was produced though, as the quality of the cameras or output will determine image quality, so your milage may vary.

I hope that clears things up. You'd be surprised how difficult it is to find a straightforward explanation on what iSense is, as I guess Odeon don't want to talk down their IMAX offerings. That being said, until recently there was only two iSense screens in the UK. Now, Odeon are building new iSense screens including one in Northwich, which opens next week. I suspect they will start making more noise about iSense in the coming few years as the ratio of cinemas with IMAX vs iSense starts to even out.