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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2005

Riding the rails in Britain isn't the awful experience you think

Last week, we found ourselves in the distinctly odd position of praising British Rail - something that would have gotten us laughed off the pages of any newspaper published in the UK.

Brits are hardly enamored of their current railway system, and understandably so. They have seen their once-proud national treasures - remember The Royal Scot and The Mallard - tumble from top-rank to also-rans, at least when compared to their continental cousins, the French, the Swiss, and the Germans.

We've read, heard, and even experienced some of those Brit Rail horror stories, particularly those concerned with the commuter lines that transport millions of workers into London every day on dirty, graffiti-ridden trains that rarely run on schedule and are subject to all manner of strikes, slowdowns, and cancellations due to track repairs.

Well, the long-distance trains we rode a couple of weeks ago between London's Euston Station and Preston in the north of England were Pendolinos operated by Virgin Rail.

And, according to its onboard magazine, Virgin has 53 of these 125-mph smoothies that together with a fleet of 78 Voyagers, run some 334 daily services, call at 135 stations, carry 94,500 passengers a day, and 33 million a year. Not bad.

The seats in Second Class were a little too close for our comfort - better to reserve seats with tables in between. And the tariff of 59 pounds ($110) per person for the 500-mile round-trip seemed a bit much - especially with the value of the dollar in such deep decline.

But when compared to the cost of renting a car - with gasoline at $6-plus a gallon - it probably wasn't that bad a deal. Furthermore, given the congested state of British highways, we could never have managed to drive to Blackpool and back in a single day and still have time for sightseeing. And reminiscing.

The trains ran precisely on time, both ways. The carriages were regularly cleaned between stops. The loos were modern and efficient. And there was a roving trolley service to complement a bar and snack car.

All in all, a 4-star performance.

On the overall subject of UK transportation, it must have been our lucky month. The London Underground - another perennial whipping boy - has also made some marked improvements in the past couple of years.

This month we traveled frequently between our north London base and central London on the Tube and never waited more than a couple of minutes for a train. Almost unbelievably - for our memories go back 50 years or more - the carriages were also universally clean, the platforms spruced up everywhere. And there were plenty of staff to help when needed and to keep the stations neat, tidy, and safe.

There was one slightly scary sardine-style experience, but that was in the peak commuter period - something normally avoided because our Off-Peak One-Day Travelcards weren't valid until after 9:30 am.

IT'S PROBABLY all too easy to be scared away from visiting London these days.

Traditionally the world's second most expensive city, it's now further punished by the truly dreadful dollar/pound exchange rate, pushing prices of just about everything into the stratosphere for U.S. travelers.

But with a bit of care and some time on the Internet, visitors can do quite a lot to mitigate some of those high costs.

Take London hotels, for instance.

We stayed for five days at a Holiday Inn near the trendy north London suburb of Hampstead in a room found on the Internet for 67 pounds ($125) a night.

Thinking to do even better by calling the hotel direct, we were quoted a rate of 80-90 pounds. We opted for the Internet rate, and booked online (www.ichotelsgroup.com).

In the interests of journalistic curiosity, we also looked at rooms in a Travel Inn (www.travelinn.co.uk) on London's popular South Bank - directly behind the London Eye, across from the Houses of Parliament, and a five-minute doddle from Waterloo Station.

Quite spacious twins (with options for triples and families), a refurbished lobby since our last visit, an in-house restaurant and bar, and plenty of alternative dining options nearby, make the 89-pound ($166) rack rate superb value for this prime location.

London is always a brilliant destination. And it doesn't necessarily have to cost a king's ransom.



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