The P&O EXPRESS to Troon
By Gary Andrews, April 2005
|The P&O EXPRESS to Troon|
P&O's Larne fast ferry service began on 12 June 1996 when the Norwegian-built mono-hull JETLINER entered service on the Cairnryan route. Although offering a revolutionary one-hour crossing, the craft was plagued by technical problems (despite actually having superb general construction) and never quite gave the route the reliability of product needed.
She was replaced shortly into the 2000 season by the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS - an Austal 82m catamaran - which had was owned by Star Cruises and had operated on the Portsmouth - Cherbourg route during the 1998 and 1999 seasons. That craft having been replaced at Portsmouth by the 1998-built 91 metre Incat (INCAT 047) CATALONIA L, renamed PORTSMOUTH EXPRESS, which had previously been used by owners Buquebus on their Spanish services. Whilst the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS transformed the image of P&O's Larne operation in a positive way with close to 100% reliability, her Portsmouth replacement did quite the reverse, even resulting in the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS returning south at one point whilst her Incat replacement was withdrawn for repairs during peak summer 2000.
The PORTSMOUTH EXPRESS initially returned to Buquebus each winter, the Cherbourg route being seasonal, as was the Larne fast ferry route following the arrival on the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS which was only on seasonal charters. This resulted in INCAT 047 seeing at least one winter in service in Argentina, having another winter laid up in Algeciras and so many name changes that few can accurately deal with them. It is suffice to say she has been named CATALONIA and CATALONIA L whilst with Buquebus. With P&O she appears to have been named PORTSMOUTH EXPRESS 2000, 2001 and 2002. 2003 saw her operating with the marketing name of "EXPRESS" but she remained with the official name of CATALONIA, though she was renamed EXPRESS in November 2003. With the Portsmouth - Caen service operating in 2004, the marketing name of the ship was changed to "CHERBOURG EXPRESS" though she retained the name EXPRESS.
Name changes aside the EXPRESS had quite a dubious career at Portsmouth with all too frequent technical problems, though the situation radically improved during her last two seasons when the craft did not operate for Buquebus during the previous winter and during winter 2003 - 2004 she remained under P&O control whilst significant and fairly effective repairs were carried out. Many, if not all, the craft's problems appear to stem from the four Caterpillar engines used aboard the ship - all her sisters vessels use the more regular Ruston engines - it appears that for some reason Buquebus had requested Incat to use Caterpillars on this vessel. (Quite aptly named as at times that is about the speed of a Caterpillar is as fast as she moved).
Meanwhile, with the arrival of the ro-pax superferries EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY and EUROPEAN HIGHLANDER on the Larne - Cairnryan route, increasing the number of passenger sailings and reducing the crossing times on the Cairnryan route, a Larne - Troon fast ferry service was introduced in 2003 - the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS offering 2 roundtrips to Troon and 2 roundtrips to Cairnryan per day. The Larne - Troon passenger service had actually begun on a limited basis during 2002 when the freighter EUROPEAN NAVIGATOR carried passengers on her freight sailings to the Scottish port. The Troon fast ferry service proved popular and was repeated in 2004.
The problems affecting P&O Ferries in recent years have been very well documented - basically many of the company's routes were failing to perform. This resulted in a major review in 2004 which saw a decision taken to close the company's routes between Portsmouth and France. With the EXPRESS on charter until the end of 2007 and the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS on an annual charter it made much sense to simply abandon the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS and use the EXPRESS at Larne, having lost the route for which she was chartered.
Needless to say the decision - whilst entirely understandable - was not one welcomed by those that knew of the craft's history. On the positive side she has a larger passenger and significantly larger vehicle capacity to the craft she replaced which will be especially useful now that P&O are the only fast ferry service from Northern Ireland to Troon. Marketed as the P&O EXPRESS (though still named EXPRESS), the craft entered service on 18 March; 2 days later than planned following a delayed arrival from overhaul at Birkenhead.
Two friends and I used the craft on Thursday 31 March as our means of transport for a day out in Glasgow and at the outset I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised.
Check-in at the Larne terminal was efficient and after a brief wait boarding commenced for the 07:15 sailing to Troon around 06:40. Boarding at Larne is via a terminal connected walkway which leads through a new access midships on the port side of her lower passenger deck (Deck D) - this can clearly be seen on photos, having replaced a window. This door is also used at Cairnryan whilst foot passengers for Troon use the vehicle deck, accessed via a partially outside stairwell at her stern. (The Troon berth not being suitable for a gangway of any type).
As well as being exceptionally reliable the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS had some of the nicest accommodation to be found on any fast craft, unsurprising given her cruise company ownership. This mainly featured attractive high backed seating arranged around tables in three main areas - along with a separate Club Class area.
Whilst the EXPRESS is simply not as nice as the SUPERSTAR EXPRESS - her accommodation is acceptable and improvements made to her for the Larne service have vastly improved her.
Deck D aboard the craft is a half passenger deck - the forward part of this deck being a vehicle deck. To explain this it is worth pointing out that she has the "spiral" type cardecks found on some fast craft - some drivers aren't keen on these decks and they certainly require very efficient ship and port management to be effectively used. There are lobbies on her port and starboard sides which extend up to the top of Deck E and include the stairwells up to Deck E as well as the passageway to the lounge area at the aft end of Deck D.
It is this area midships on Deck D that has possibly seen most change with the transfer to Larne as this area which was previously her main shop is now Poets Bar. An attractive area with windows looking onto her walkways with their huge panoramic windows it is bright by day with a mix of lounge seating and comfortable single person "barrel" seats (of the same type found at her stern dating from her Portsmouth days). There is also a raised section behind the bar featuring some seats but is mainly an arcade area featuring fruit machines and stairs down to a crew only area (store etc).
Moving towards the stern there is a reasonably sized Seashop and information desk before reaching a raised area which was formerly her Club Class area at Portsmouth. (Club Class has been dropped from the Larne routes). This area features a large number of forward facing airline seats but these are larger than those found elsewhere on the craft and can recline. At her stern is a large window stretching up to Deck E with a Harbour Coffee Company catering outlet (previously her Club Class bar) facing a set of around six tables with four single person "barrel" seats situated right beside her large window. This area is easily the nicest area on the ship.
Deck E is accessed via stairwells on both sides of her Deck D walkways and one immediately enters her Fables restaurant area. This area has been extensively renewed for her new routes with new flooring and her "barrel" type seating replaced by leather type low level fixed seating around tables (similar I think to that found on some of the Dover vessels) - it is similar in style to some trendy coffee shops and with a "sky light" is quite an attractive area. Also here is an enclosed children's play area.
Forward of this, raised, is a high-density forward-facing airline seating type area which includes a door leading to the outside deck area - which is situated immediately behind the bridge. Behind Fables (which also has a stern facing servery, presumably for use at busy periods - but closed on my crossing), heading towards the stern is another area featuring high-density aircraft seating. At the stern of this area is a balcony looking down on the Harbour Coffee Company area below and gives a good view through the large stern window. All of the airline type seating includes pull-down trays for drinks etc.
The best areas aboard the ship are undoubtedly both on Deck D; the Harbour Coffee Company area at the stern and the Poets Bar midships. It is notable that on both my crossings these were the most popular areas - if travelling in a group, forward facing airline seating isn't as sociable as other seating arrangements. That said the airline seating appeared comfortable enough, especially the former Club Class seating on Deck D. However, throughout the ship's accommodation is certainly acceptable.
Getting back to my own crossings.
The ship departed Larne fifteen minutes early, around 07:00, with 09:00 given as the ETA by Captain Val Plant. Having been out the night before and had an early start we were ready for some breakfast and soon visited Fables. I'd be lying to say breakfast was world class but it was certainly acceptable and acceptably priced. There is limited food preparation ability aboard this craft therefore the fare on offer isn't overly extensive but P&O seem to have been quite sensible in offering things which are tasty but easily offered using the facilities available and coming back I noted the main meals - featuring dishes such as curry - looked edible enough.
We enjoyed our crossing to Troon and berth to berth, arrival was well within the ETA though as previously mentioned foot passengers disembark via the vehicle deck and there was a slight wait for us. A bus transports foot passengers to the terminal which is about a two minute drive away. I can't remember exact times but to give you some idea, having passed through security we walked to the train station at Troon which is a 10 to 15 minute walk and even though we did take one wrong turn (it has been two years since I last did this specific trip!) - we were arriving at Troon train station as the 09:24 to Glasgow was departing. One could certainly not fault that for a crossing time - when running well the 91 m Incats are very fast vessels and it certainly seems that by allowing a 2-hour crossing time P&O are giving themselves good scope to achieve the same.
We caught the train to Glasgow around 09:54, getting us into Glasgow around 10:30. Following coffee and shopping we had an enjoyable light bar lunch before some more shopping and a visit to a few bars.
This bar tour eventually took us to the German themed Über Lounge Republic (www.rbh.info for details of the drinks list) which had something like 59 different types of beer not to mention countless vodkas etc. After some experimentation we discovered that the Belgian Liefmanns Kriek (cherry beer) was the closest thing we'd ever come to discovering the most perfect drink ever - my first mouthful was like a party in my mouth and even at £4 a bottle the only thing that stopped me drinking was the prospect of missing my train to Troon. A friend also tried the Liefmanns Frambozen (Raspberry beer) which also tasted excellent. Should you find yourself in Glasgow, if you enjoy alcohol you have got to visit this bar - it is easily worth a visit to Glasgow on its own. Indeed even if you don't like alcohol try the Liefmanns Kriek and you soon will.
With big smiles on our faces we headed back to Glasgow's Central Station for the 17:30 to Troon, getting us back to the port's train station shortly after 18:00. Although we nearly took a wrong turn leaving the station (having obviously arrived at the opposite platform we'd boarded from but with both sides looking the same not noticing) we were soon in site of P&O's Troon terminal and with an hour to spare before check-in paid a visit to the Anchorage Hotel overlooking the port. I last visited the Anchorage Hotel www.anchoragehoteltroon.co.uk for a brief drink in 2003 and could distinctly remember how good the food looked. We all ordered fish and chips which was thankfully served quickly and tasted wonderful.
We checking in for the 20:20 sailing to Larne in good time and were soon in the waiting area - it is notable that P&O appear to be carrying more foot passengers since Seacat closed their Belfast - Troon service and following the loading a reasonable number of cars we were soon bussed down to the EXPRESS.
We took our seats in Poets Bar and at 20:10 Captain Al Sodhi announced that loading was complete and we'd be leaving soon with an ETA at Larne of 22:10. We had another pleasant crossing and in good company the crossing flew and whilst I did not record the time of our arrival it is certainly safe to say we were off the vessel well before 22:10.
So how does the EXPRESS fare?
Running well - as she was on my crossings - she offered a fast crossing well within the crossing time. One hopes that with a full passenger load and the ship on a full schedule this can be maintained as it is certainly a strong selling point. (At the time of my trip she was operating 2 Troon trips per day and 1 Cairnryan trip - during peak season she will operate an additional Cairnryan trip)
Her accommodation isn't awful by any stretch of the imagination but the vast numbers of forward facing airline seats, whilst they may be comfortable, aren't the most convivial arrangement. Her Poets Bar and Harbour Coffee Company areas are very nice however, and her shop and other catering outlets are very satisfactory. This is aided by a notably friendly crew and a very efficiently run ship.
Her current outside area is - to be blunt - awful - a small high sided area that anybody under about 5ft 9 can't see over is hardly worth having and being next to her bridge I'm sure her crew aren't too fond of it! It would be great if another outdoor area could be found. This to my mind the one and only major failing of this craft.
All in all the P&O EXPRESS is a good product and well worth travelling on. The craft is at Larne for at least another two seasons after this year and there is time to iron out any minor issues based on experience - with some of the competition gone there is little reason why the public shouldn't use her routes to Troon and Cairnryan and find them a worthwhile experience. Whilst the season has been extended from mid-September to early October it would be nice to see this extended a bit further - maybe even to winter weekends?