A saga with Virgin Trains Mobile e-tickets

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I've often considered myself an early adopter, but being of the nervous disposition I am in fact wary of things like e-tickets because no technology is perfect. Typically I like to have a paper backup of such things, just in case.

So, this also applied when I recently booked the whole family on return Virgin West Coast tickets from Scotland to London. I hesitantly ordered my tickets to be delivered to my mobile phone because I have been let down by the post before, and we have no self-service machine at our local station. (Sure, I can use the one at the main station on the day, which is 20 miles away, but I always feel it's a bit too late to find out something is wrong just before your train; I like to have these things in my hand in advance).

The thing is, Virgin seem to have changed their delivery of e-tickets and their app a few times lately. There was a time when you could download them into your iPhone wallet and display them on your lock-screen, which was ultra handy. And once they were on the phone, they were on the phone (or so it seemed anyway). I had very little issue with this system other than the risk of my phone conking out.

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Now, however, tickets are accessed through the Virgin mobile app. The process seems similar: you "download" tickets, then on the day "activate" them. Well, our outward journey was fine, but it started to go wrong on the return journey.

We were sitting in Euston and about an hour before the journey I went into the app and made sure the tickets were "downloaded". All good. I then activated them, to make sure I had everything ready to present. Again, all good.

30 minutes before the journey I checked my phone again, checked the tickets were ok, and explained to my fellow-travellers that we'd have to show them at the platform entrance. All good.

Where did my tickets go?

About 20 minutes before the departure of the train we got the text notification to proceed to concourse. So, down we went.

I told you I was the nervous type, so I checked the tickets again. This time not good. I had been logged out of the app, and was presenting with a login screen. I tried to login with my regular details and it was rejected. Panic started to set in.

Now, I should also add that the week before when I booked the tickets, Virgin had taken it upon themselves to forcibly reject my existing password as not meeting their "new requirements" and so I had changed password. I started to wonder whether I was making a mistake or if it was them. Either way, whatever I tried, I was not getting in: I could not display my tickets.

I raced to the virgin ticket area to seek assistance - massive queues; one member of staff out front assisting and busy with two people ahead of me. Anyway, politely I waited while my blood pressure doubled, and eventually explained the predicament to him.

Now, I had taken what reasonable and available "backup" precautions I could, in the sense i had screen shots of my booking, the reference number etc. I asked would this be sufficient to at least get on the train and then try and sort the problem? He said no - the best he could offer was go over to the corner where there's a phone to virgin central command and see if they can do something like change your train!

A flash of inspiration

By now I was proper panicking, and was trying to do a password reset.

THEN, suddenly, I just had a light-bulb moment. Was this the internet? I realised my phone was showing a public WiFi connection but I'd not been asked to log in. I killed the WiFi, dropped back to 4G, and fired up the app again. I re-entered my login details and -boom- lo and behold I was back in my account.

However, my tickets were not in the app, despite previously having been "downloaded"! I "downloaded" them again, which thankfully worked, and was then able to activate them, before dragging my family at breakneck speed to the platform. We were back up and running.

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This was a terrible experience on many counts: poor process design, poor user experience [failing a login attempt because of no internet connection but reporting just a login failure; loss of already "downloaded" tickets for example], poor customer service. It may have expanded my child’s vocabulary somewhat, but it didn’t do my cardiac system any good.

I had a quick look at the Virgin FAQ on e-tickets, and it says this:

Q: What happens if I run out of battery?

A: Ensure your mobile is charged, if you are unable to display your mobile ticket, you'll need to buy a new ticket at the full fare.

In other words: "no-show, no go.."

Obviously anyone reading that FAQ ought to realise that it would include any reason for failure to display the ticket; but what it doesn’t say is that mobile app appears to rely on an internet connection to display tickets. Had I known this at the outset this whole saga could have been avoided. Although, it does then beg the question, if the tickets are "downloaded" and "activated" why is an internet connection required at all after that point?

I suspect the answer is the tickets actually only live on the virgin server, and unless you can display that, you are stuffed.

back to good old paper

Suffice to say, I won't be using this system any time soon again in future unless I really have no option or Virgin introduce some kind of mitigation for device or connectivity failure. And if I do end up having to use the app again in future, at least I will take screenshots of all the tickets and bar-codes from inside the app in advance.

You have been warned.

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When is a holiday not a holiday?

We've now returned from our Scottish holiday, taking in 5 days of the Edinburgh Fringe and a trip to the Highlands. It's been a wonderful time away, my nails have grown substantially, and despite the food and whisky I only seem to have put on a pound in weight. 

Like many "holidays" it turned out to be rather busy and many of the things I thought I would do in my downtime (a lot of writing, for example) just didn't get done. 

Here's a run down of some of the things we got up to:

 

  • We saw about a dozen shows, not including the freebies and impromptu acts in streets and bars. This included big names such as Rich Hall, Sarah Millican, Ed Byrne and Dave Gorman (who was brilliant) as well as less well-known acts such as James Acaster and Andrew Lawrence (also exceptional); of course, not forgetting our favourite magicians Barry and Stuart
  • We frequented The Whiski Rooms - a wonderful bar, bistro and whisky shop, providing exceptional food and great live Scottish Music. 
  • We woke up at 5.45am on our first day thanks to Veolia coming to empty the bins at the travelodge. Well done folks. 
  • We walked between 20 and 30 miles over the week, as tracked by DeviceLocator and Google Latitude on my iPhone. That helped keep the weight down.
  • We avoided blisters by wearing state of the art Rohan footwear. 
  • We fed a Squirrel in Princes Street gardens and watched it burying his food. 
  • We discovered bumblebees going nuts over Oregano and Marjoram. 
  • We drove 1200 miles. 
  • We had a spa day at Bannatynes in Edinburgh to try and recover. It really helped!
  • I processed a few photos while on the move, but most still have to be done :) 
  • We did some "baby sitting" with my niece Chloe, who was wonderful entertainment. 
  • We gave an impromptu talk about bumblebees to a nursery of twelve 3 and 4 year olds. We managed to succesfully keep them entertained for an hour and got a wonderful thankyou card made by them all.
  • We did a circular tour round the back of Loch Ness to soak up the scenery and make the best of a window in the weather. 
  • I had a meeting with Cafe Beag who agreed to display and sell my scottish photos
  • Roy Bridge post office also agreed to stock and sell my photos
  • I had a very interesting and productive meeting with Me On My Wall canvas company who have agreed to licensing some of my images for their Highland Collection of canvases. This is a really exciting complement to my Scottish prints, which will see them on display in some prime locations.  

 

Here's a mock of up what's coming:

example canvas

Not a moment was wasted - my last meeting took me to within 15 minutes of my planned leaving time for the journey home and I still had to pack! Most of my photo processing, blogging and writing all had to go on the back burner and  didn't get done. But as you can see, it was a very productive and busy time nonetheless, and I was really delighted to be making progress with getting the photography "out there". All part of the long term Scottish plan. 

 

Please forgive me - it's fossil fuel...

This household is about to buy a new car, a supermini, and it won't be electric and it won't be a hybrid.

Before you yell, no-one is sadder about this than me.

As an early adopter and general planet-hugger, I already switched to a diesel car with double the MPG (and diesel particulate filter) a few years ago. So, the prospect of a car that is cleaner still and costs about 90% less per mile is a very tantalising idea. [By the way, I won't even enter a debate on the stats and benefits of electric - if you want a decent argument on the topic, follow Bobby Llewelyn on twitter or read his blog - he knows his stuff.] 

So, firstly, the car is not for me, but my better half; so ultimately it's her decision and has to fit her needs. I will only drive it occasionally. (Unless, perhaps, she was getting a car that was faster than mine, in which case I might hanker after it all the time :-) But she's not.)

Secondly, electric cars currently just don't suit our needs. A lot of criticism comes the way of the current breed of electric cars, most centred around range, which is typically 100 - 140 miles on a charge. For many, many people who are based in towns and doing lots of short trips and school runs, this type of vehicle would surely meet their needs. However, it just so happens that our life doesn't follow that pattern - in fact we both have long distance journeys to do as our main journeys (so not only can we not share one car, but we need two). Turns out those journeys are beyond the distance of the average electric range and we also don't have the necessary charging means at the other end. I think an electric car would be brilliant to have - but we need a simpler life. (I reckon that's true regardless.)

So, much as I believe that electric cars represent a realistic future and can deliver some cracking performance, the current range limitation rules them out of our driving pattern for the time-being. Next time round might be a possibility though.

Now, what would be a good alternative for our lifestyle is a hybrid car, which combines fossil fuel and electric power to deliver more MPG and extended range when there is no battery power. Volvo, for example, have just announced an S60 saloon than can deliver about 125mpg and drive 1000 miles on a tank. Awesome. Truly Awesome.

The issue with this breed of cars basically comes down to cost and choice. There are not that many models available at the moment and they are also beyond our current target budget (and form factor) of a super-mini. I can pretty much guarantee that if Skoda produced a hybrid Fabia at Skoda prices, it would be a no-brainer purchase.

But they don't. No-one does. 

So, that leaves us going for a conventional fossil burner. Another requirement is to have an automatic, which also limits the choice and price - and in the end the best all-round value vehicle we have found is the Skoda Fabia with 7 Speed DSG auto box (a beautiful piece of equipment in its own right, complete with "flappy paddles" as the girls on Top Gear would say). Better still, the auto is actually more economical than the equivalent manual! I am confident it will be a smooth and economical drive, as I have the 6 speed DSG on my Octavia and it's nothing short of fantastic. These cars must be popular as the waiting list is currently 4 - 5 months.

Once again, it will be a step change in economy and lower emissions compared to the car it is replacing - so it's all in the right direction. I hope you feel forgiving. 

 

How to suck a mattress down to size

AN UPDATED NOTE: quite a few readers have contacted via the comments with questions about their own situation - will it work with this mattress so-and-so? Am I doing it right?  Why can't I get my back to shrink?  etc. etc. PLEASE NOTE - if you want to ask a question, please contact me via the contact form rather than post a comment, as these go unseen, and there is no way for me to reply to them. 

This article was written for memory foam mattresses. If you are trying it with a sprung mattress, I suspect it won't work. (But it does work with a futon! ) If you want to buy the items used, just try eBay. I did!


I recently had the challenge of transporting a king size memory foam mattress. The choices seemed to be hire a van (or removal company) or somehow ram it into the Skoda Octavia in the hope it would bend and fit. I wasn’t over-keen on that option as it would mean leaving little room for anything else in the car.

Rewind and little, and the mattress originally came rolled up in a vacuum packed bag and box (which expanded with great amusement when sliced open). Could I therefore repeat this feat of wizardy and reverse the great unfolding? Well, I do like a challenge, especially when science is on my side.

I was inspired by those “vac pac” bags you can get that: you suck the air from a sealed polythene bag with your favourite dysonomatic and compress the contents down to an n-th their size. Seemed like a perfect solution but it didn’t take long scouring the internet to discover vac-pacs don’t come in that size (and if they did, they would cost a pretty penny).

So I figured I could make one. I ordered a king size mattress polythene bag, as used by removal companies for protection. That only cost a couple of pounds. Then I ordered a small vac-pac bag off eBay, which also costs under 2 pounds.

I wrapped the mattress in the large bag and sealed with gaffer & parcel tape. I cut out the valve from the vac pac and taped it to the inside of the large bag and sliced a hole to bring the valve through; and again, taped it up as airtight as I could. (see picture)

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Then, with the help of my able assistant, we attached a vacuum cleaner and began sucking the air from the mattress bag. It compressed beautifully. We kept going (somewhat startled by how effective it was) until the mattress was thin enough to start rolling; stopping every once in a while to listen for leaks (very obvious hissing!) and sealing them with parcel tape. Then I rolled the mattress and stood it on end. The bag was still a bit leaky so we continued vacuuming while I wrapped it in tape to keep the roll shape intact.

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It worked a treat, you can see the mattress loaded in the car and also 24 hours later when it was unpacked, still pretty much roll shaped! Gotta be one of the best 4 quid I have spent!

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Driving routes from England to Scotland (Cambridge to Inverness)

I'm often asked about driving to Scotland - since I do the journey myself pretty often. There are fewer main roads in Scotland which simplifies the choices, but there are still options for distance versus scenery. My main recommendations are presented below, based on a journey from Cambridge to Inverness - which raises the question: do I go East or West?

Option 1: Head West

 

The most scenic route in my opinion (for the scottish part) is the west - through GLENCOE- i.e. A82... 

My recommended way to take that from is:  (524 miles)

A1 north -> A66 at scotch corner to cut west -> M6/M74 north -> M8 round glasgow -> Erskine bridge -> (A82) Glencoe -> Fort William -> Inverness

Route Map

At the scottish end this is the more interesting route as it goes through Glencoe and past Loch Ness. The English end is basically just motoroway.

Option 2: A9 East Scotland

The M6 is the main motorway up the west of the country - and surprisingly it costs very little in extra miles to cut across to the west then back again. 

Via M6 / A9 (510 Miles)

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Google suggests this route - which is basically simplest, but also arguably most boring.. The English and lowland Scotland stretch is the same as option 1, but then it takes the A9 (i.e. the eastern side of the highlands) up to Inverness, so is more direct... saves about 15 miles - (amazingly you'd think it would be a lot more.. )

Option 3: Stay entirely East

499 miles

The natural inclination might be to stay East for the whole journey and head towards Edinburgh. Instead of doing that all the way up the A1, it is shorter and quicker and more scenic to cut across country from Newcastle. You CAN go through Northumberland National park which is a very scenic, but quite twisty route... so I tend to skirt round the edge on this route through COLDSTREAM:

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As you can see - this misses out Glencoe on the west and uses the A9 - i.e. stays East for the whole journey. Consequently it is the shortest route, but still by less than 30 miles...   this is the route I would take if pressed for time and wanting "just to get there" without being too bothered about scenery..

Option 4: The tourist route

535 miles

This is option is if you really want to go past Edinburgh and also do the scenic route through glencoe...  so overall, it probably is THE most scenic route..

This is longest - but picks up Edinburgh, Glencoe and Loch Ness

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As you can see, timewise and distance wise there is not a whole load in it..

[photos: Nik Sargent]

Driving Tips for Freshers

For students starting university this term, the last thing on their mind is probably driver safety.

But the roads before Fresher’s Week are increasingly filled with students moving their worldly possessions across the country - usually in heavily-laden, small, second-hand cars, raising a number of potential risks; fatigue, view blocking and driving on unfamiliar roads.

The IAM (Institute of Advanced Motorists) has a few tips for those travelling to university this week on how to load all their clothes, books, stereos, TV’s and food, and allow students to kick-start their uni life safely.

  • Make sure belongings are securely packed - bear in mind, drivers can face prosecution for travelling with an ‘unsecure load’. More importantly, loose objects can be distracting and if the driver needs to brake sharply, unsecured items could fly forward and hit those sitting in front.
  • Loading a car until it’s ready to burst can obstruct the already dangerous ‘blind spot’ view further, making the driver more vulnerable when changing lanes. Loads should be made as small as possible and positioned for a clear view. Students should take essentials on the first trip and ask family to bring more when they visit.
  • A long drive can lead to fatigue, so drivers should get plenty of rest beforehand. For the journey, comfortable, loose clothing should be worn, the driving seat should be adjusted to a safe upright position and the heating/air-conditioning set to a cool – not cold – temperature, regular breaks should be taken at least every two hours and driving at night should be avoided.
  • Having a full car will use more fuel; keep an eye on the fuel level to ensure it doesn’t run out.
  • Check tyre pressures before setting off. Tyres on a full and heavy car usually require higher pressure. The right pressures prevent unnecessary wear, excess fuel consumption and potentially dangerous blow outs.
  • Finally, driving on unfamiliar roads can be unnerving. Sat navs can help and enable the driver to re-route quickly and relatively easily, however, they can be expensive so it is best to plan the journey before hitting the road. 

University life is fantastic; students should make sure theirs isn’t postponed by keeping their car safely loaded while driving there.

 

[source IAM]

Vaxhaull Insignia: Designed to kill you

This car is horrible to drive. 
Through no fault of my own I'm driving a rental Vauxhall Insignia. I wish I wasn't.
It's apparently a "like for like" replacement for my Skoda Octavia vRS. Now, of course, the Skoda's not the most wonderful car on the market - but actually it turns in great JD Power satisfaction results year after year and frankly, is a big-smile-of-joy to drive. 
Not so the Vauxhall. Within 30 seconds I disliked this car. Within 10 minutes I hated it. Let me catalogue a few of the failings.

Ergonomics and usability

I expect to get in a car and figure out to use it in 30 seconds. Consider me new-fashioned but that's the way of the busy modern world. And I design voice user interfaces. 
I can barely begin to catalogue the ergonimic failings of this car - some verging on dangerous. But here are a few:
  • Hard to adjust wallowy seat with very hard lumbar support and a bizzare combination of manual and poorly-labelled electric controls. 
  • Overloaded with controls of poor design. An example being the "turnable" controls (e.g. for trip computer) on the fingertip stalks. Not only is this type of control hard to location and control accurately (turning motion on the stalk can be prone to operate the stalk in other unintentional directions) but more importantly, you can't fingertip control them - you have to take your hand completely off the wheel to operate. (In contrast, in the Octy, every steering and stalk control can be operated by finger tip).  You can see one such control in the picture below.
I can't decide which of the next two failings are the most ludicrous and/or dangerous.
  • First is the console control panel for the audio sytem. A swathe of indistinct plastic which at its biggest is 7 buttons wide by 5 buttons high. Yes, that's right 7 BUTTONS WIDE x 5 BUTTONS HIGH. Why on earth does it need so many buttons? This car doesn't even have extra features like electric seats or bluetooth. And if it does need so many buttons, why do they have to be so unfriendly, badly labelled and hard to navigate by touch.
    You really have to take your eyes off the road to operate this.

  

  • Perhaps the piece de resistance, however, is the insane placement of the gear indication on the automatic gear stalk. When the gears are in use it is completely obsucured from the driver! As a result of this I accidentally selected reverse at one set of traffic lights when I was aiming to select neutral. And there is no indication of the gear the car has selected in the driver's display. The whole set up is dangerous to the point of negligence. I've created a superimposed photo below of the gearstick in two positions, showing how in use it blocks the gear markings. 

 

Handling 

Woolly and indistinct. You can't really tell how hard you are pressing the brakes, and the steering wheel connects with the road as if through a bungee cord. In fact, it's so like a bungee cord, when you turn a corner the steering is threatening to rip itself out of your hands to return to centre. It actually feels dangerous. Feel the road? No - all I can feel is my heartbeat panicking.

Visibility and Functionality

horrible visibility out the narrow back window, with huge 'C' pillars - made worse by a pointy boot that you can't see the end of. 
Speaking of the boot - it's deep but loses so much width due to needlessly fat rear wings. What makes it worse is the pointed boot lip. But even worse is the non-flat floor. It has so many ridges and "shelves" that it's more like the floor of the Atlantic ocean.
Overall? A triumph of form over function

 

Installing an iPhone TomTom power cable behind the dashboard

Here's some pictures of how I wired a TomTom iPhone mount behind the dash of a VW Passat.

Note, this didn't involve finding a new power source or wiring to the fuse box. Instead power was taken from the 12v lighter/accessory socket in the ashtray. The actual ashtray was removed (it is designed to be removable) so it can be put back at a later date.

The jack end of the tomtom power cable can be stowed in the ashtray cavity when not in use, with the lid closed - hiding it from view. 

To perform this job requires a couple of tools designed for the job. Ideally you need "dash tools" - these are strong plastic wedge shaped tools that allow you to pop the fascia off the front of the dash. The fascia in all modern cars is just clip on plastic. You also need a suitable star-shaped spanner set - as most car fittings use this form factor. This is used for removing bolted in items such as the ashtray container and air conditioning controls. A set for about £20 is a good investment if you intend working on your car a few times or on several cars. Finally, i also used a "magnamole" - a new invention (as shown on Dragon's Den") of bendy flexible sticks with a magnetic end - very handy for routing and picking up wires in small spaces you can't get your hand.

The tomtom itself is mounted on the dash using the standard suction mount onto a tomtom-supplied sticky disc, designed for the purpose. They cost about £5 for two. (I've also used one to mount a video camera in the rear of my car)

Pictures of the installation follow:

 

starting the job: dash fascia removed (tools shown on seat)

 

upper cable routed behind air vents

 This was a bit tricky getting the USB end through the small hole. Ideally I'd have gone through the gap at the side, but it was just too small.

cable routed behind A/C controls to drop down behind lighter socket

This was the bit that needed the Mangamole to pick up the USB cable from behind the lighter power socket. I removed the A/C controls and dropped the rod down behind to grab the metal end of the cable from inside the lower part of the dash.

 Hole drilled in ashtray cavity to route power cable

     Drilling the hole was unavoidable - the ashtray cavity is totally sealed and any attempts to come round/over the side/top prevent the flap from working. However, the actual ashtray has been removed (it's designed to for cleaning/emptying) so the hole is easily covered if the cable is removed and the ashtray replaced.  

 

finshed job - mounted on a tomtom dash suction plate

The final job is pretty neat and discreet. It avoids those tell-tale suction marks on the windscreen that thieves love and with or without the mount in place is easily covered with a small hat :-)  It is also much safer for driving as there is no risk of the trailing cable getting caught up in anything (gear lever, hand) and the iPhone is in much closer reach of the driver.

The power cable stows neatly in the ashtray when not in use and is plugged into the lighter socket when required.

The positioning of the iPhone tomtom also improves handsfree performance as both speaker and mic are closer to the driver.

  

Finally tempted my brother to the dark side...

After what must be the best part of 20 years driving exclusively volvo, I never thought my brother would defect. But he has! He's bought a Skoda!

I think the pressure has been gnawing away from within the family network - not only did I defect from Volvo/Saab (I like my fast, swedish, quirky cars) to Skoda a few years ago, but so did my sister (at the same time and completely independently) and finally my mother recently, prompted by the UK scrappage scheme. 

The leap on paper was big for me - not only from a 300bhp SAAB to a "lesser" badge, but a diesel car at that. But, I was too tempted by the alarming regularity of rave reviews, much lower all round purchase & running costs, capacious load carrying, and a fun pokey engine in the vRS - which is essentially a Golf GTI by another name and body shell. 

I've never looked back. Thrilled by fun, low cost, high economy motoring, not a day goes past without the car putting a smile on my face. A spirited drive does not cost the earth, unlike that of my brother's volvo T5 - for which you have to take steps to arrange a bank loan before you give it a long blast through the mountains. And, should you care to chip your diesel vRS you can have 430Nm of torque propelling you past pretty much any line of traffic. Even my 300bhp saab only managed 400Nm. 

So, spurred by Skoda's current "tax free" deal (i.e you pay list price before VAT is added, saving about £3500 on a top spec car) my brother has jumped ship - also to a diesel Octy vRS estate. He won't regret it. Not to be outdone, I'm changing mine too - for the same thing. This is the first time I've replaced a car with one the same - that's how much I love my Skoda

It'll be interesting to compare cars - his is the manual, mine will be the DSG auto (with flappy paddles). Both will benefit from the new common rail diesel engine which allows a higher rev limit, and if my test drive is anything to go by, a smoother power delivery across the range. I was mightily impressed by the DSG - responsiveness, comfort and ease of use. I doubt I will go back especially once it's come into its own in all those M25 queues. 

Roll on March - we've ordered them only 2 days apart and from the same dealer - so they may arrive together. That'll make a nice photo :)