Okay, it's not the friends' fault. It's not that they moved to Cardiff; it's that I moved away from.
Of course, we frequently jump at an opportunity to piggy-back a visit on top of a trip that's being made for some other purpose, but sometimes one or more of us (more often me) will shell out for a train ticket. They're usually not bad: a quick hop on the local line into Reading, the main body of the journey on a HST on the old Great Western mainline, and then another local trolley at the far end. Tickets have been known to cost as little as a tenner per direction, with some judicious advance booking.
Well, this time round, I went to buy my tickets at about 3 weeks out from the intended date of travel, and due to work commitments, I was going to head out on an evening train. Tickets before 7 were in the £50 bracket and wouldn't have left any time for dinner anyway, and anything leaving home after 8 wouldn't have got me into Cardiff until stupid-o'clock at night (and my friends aren't exactly night owls), so all things considered it had to be the 7:07pm train. £36, and that was only to Cardiff Central, as the local trolleys get very sporadic at night.
The tickets arrived, and the 7:07 didn't actually say 7:07 anywhere on it, but turned out to be a 'Super Offpeak'. Very helpfully, it offered absolutely no indication whatsoever as to what times of day constituted 'Super Offpeak'. Initially I wasn't too bothered about this as I only really had one sensible choice of train anyway... but then the work arrangements changed; I was asked to do an extra day the week before last, and I managed to get a day off in lieu this week, meaning that I was no longer limited to travelling to Cardiff after dinner.
So I phoned First Great Western in a bid to figure out what 'Super Offpeak' actually meant: could I travel in the middle of the day, for example?
No I couldn't. I must admit to not being keen on getting an Accent at the far end of a phone line, but to be fair, this particular one was much more helpful than most of the others I've encountered (and a real person, however their enunciation, is still preferable to an automated system), and got me some definitive answers: un-allocated seating would be in Coach E on the HST, and - here's the rub - 'Super Offpeak' is FGW-speak for 'at night'; in other words, I could delay travelling for as long into the small hours as I fancied, but couldn't pull it any earlier, which is what I was actually interested in.
Just out of idle curiosity, I logged back in to National Rail Enquiries, fully expecting (considering that my departure date was now only 8 days away) that the cheapest tickets would be at least £40 each. But they weren't - the 11:02 departure, including local trolley at the far end, was still only £15.
I did the maths: I could get the 'Super Offpeak i.e. basically at night' ticket refunded, albeit paying 50p for the stamp to return it, and a £10 fee to get the refund processed - so £25.50 back, out of the initial £36. But even after paying the postage and the processing fee, and buying the new ticket at £15, I wound up £10.50 better off. You can do things with £10.50 - including buy a whole ticket from my place to my friends', if you book far enough in advance. Other advantages included getting another 7 hours at their place, and not having to drag one of them into the middle of the city to collect me from Central, so it seemed a bit of a no-brainer decision. I'll be on the 11:02.
My parting 'moral of the story': beware evening trains on First Great Western!
- The Colclough