On the rails

catherine-and-louis-holyhead-london-train_optI used to hate travelling back home to Ireland at Christmas. A cold slow train from London, the Holyhead hall of hell and then, of course, the ferry.  Never a good start to the season of joy and goodwill. Then budget airlines were born onto us.  They cried “Oh come all ye faithful”, and we followed the star to far-off airports to guide us home, and all was well with the world.


Until I went and got me a conscience. My 2007 New Year’s resolution was to swap the plane for the train whenever possible. So far so good, until the impending Christmas trip home and the ghost of Christmas past reared its ugly head. It was hard enough when I was travelling alone, but now I have two young children. Just  as my finger hovered over the ‘check flights’ button, my eco-warrior son Louis reminded me, “No train no gain, Mum”. I had to have faith in the Virgin. Train that is. Not prepared to risk ruining Christmas, however, I did a test trip in September for my son’s birthday.


We got off to a bad start just booking the trip. It was a logistical nightmare until I discovered the wonderful SailRail agency. So I advise you to avoid all cyber conniptions and go straight to them, talk to helpful humans who tell you all you need to know and then actually book it for you.


We left London Euston at 9am and within minutes were lashing through luscious English countryside. We had reserved seats facing each other, and settled into our warm, comfortable nests for the four hour journey to Holyhead. A fellow Dub, travelling from Edinburgh, told me she no longer flies home. “It’s better for my head. I like to take time to think about where I am going, what I am going to do when I get there”. On this journey, we chatted, planned the birthday party, played cards and read. As he took in the sights, Louis asked “Why don’t grown ups look out the window Mum? Is it just a child thing?”  I looked at everyone wired to some device, determined to shut out the world around them, and switched off my mobile.


This was a direct train and soon after lunch (the sandwiches are almost gourmet compared to the processed cheese of yesteryear), the sea came into view. I kept a nervous eye on the waves which, despite the calm, were not enough to quell my memories, and I stuffed sea sickness remedies down all our throats. We arrived with plenty of time to board, and walked off the train into a clean and modern terminal. A Donegal man who makes the trip six times a year, told me, “It breaks my heart. We had all been begging for a new terminal for years. Now it’s here and it’s empty. It was a cattle market before, dirty and full of drunks”. Sounds like Stanstead on a bad day, I thought.


As we checked in our luggage, (no more hauling your bags around the boat), I didn’t have to remove shoes, belts, hand in bottles of water or expensive handcreams. And no queue.  We walked through a covered walkway to the boat and boarded the vast Irish Ferries’ Ulysses, with cinema, restaurant, shop and endless rows of comfy seats.  The waves were kind to us, and we all dozed off only to be woken by a cacophony of ringtones telling us were welcome to Ireland.


Up on deck, the site of the red and white chimneys as we coasted into Dublin, dead on time at 17.25, invited a round of the Irish rugby anthem from my boys, at gloriously full volume into the wind. It was one of those cosy ‘good to be home’ moments, which you definitely don’t get on the plane. Nor do you get home so easily. We had hired a car for the weekend, and Dan Dooley, the only rental company at Dublin port offers a ‘meet and greet’ service. We disembarked, had bags in hand five minutes later, hopped into the car (I tried to get a hybrid, but none available to date) and were home in time for the RTE news and cup of tea.  


After a successful weekend of partying, we sped off on the Catamaran at 9am Monday morning. My sons were the green ones this time, sick bags held tightly to their faces for the duration.  Luckily, the journey was quick and the minute we stopped they were right as rain, not hesitating to down a couple of Holyhead hot chocolates as we sat out the hour long wait for the train. This time the train had one change. At Crewe. An elderly Galway man announced, smiling, “Ah sure, I wouldn’t feel I’d been in Ireland if I didn’t have to change at Crewe”. It was a quick turnaround, and the waiting room was warmer and cleaner than I remembered. We got to London ahead of the rush hour, jumped on a tube, and were home in time, again, for tea.


One carbon calculator tells me that my rail/air family footprint would have been 1.31 tonnes, compared to 0.42 for rail/sail to Dublin. A significant difference. I do believe that our dependence on short haul flights has got out of hand. But my efforts to be a more responsible traveller have taught me one more thing. Time is of the essence. Taking more of it, that is. As we snuggled up on the last leg of the journey, told stories, played chess and, yes, just looked out the window, I vowed to book the Christmas trip as soon as we got home. The ghost had definitely, been put to rest.  



Catherine travelled with Virgin Trains, Arriva Trains and Irish Ferries. See www.arrivatrainswales.co.uk, www.virgintrains.co.uk and http://www.irishferries.com for details.


For Rail Sail Bookings from on any Irish route, see www.sailrail.co.uk, or phone UK number + 44 8450 755755.  Note, there is no Irish office, so you need to give ten days for postage of tickets.  Adult return sail/rail fares from £52 for adult and £13 for a child.


For ‘meet and greet’ car hire at Dublin port contact Dan Dooley, Tel: +353 62-53103 or see www.dan-dooley.ie


(This article appeared in Ireland’s Sunday Tribune, 28 October 2007)



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