Gerrards Cross Tesco tunnel collapse, 10 years on

Collapse! Tesco tunnel after the disaster

Collapse! Tesco tunnel Gerrards Cross after the disaster

Ten years ago today, I had a lucky escape. I was on the last train through the ‘Tesco tunnel’ at Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, before it dramatically collapsed, closing the Chiltern main line for almost two months.

The tunnel was created to allow a Tesco store to be built over the railway cutting. The project was controversial, and many people in the village protested against it. It only went ahead after John Prescott overturned the council’s refusal to allow the store to be built.

I was on my way back from a work trip to Chester that evening, Thursday 30 June 2005. It was a lovely evening, and I had enjoyed the journey south. My train passed through the tunnel at around 7.15. It collapsed about 15 minutes later.

The scene three days later

The scene three days later

The weekend after, people flocked to the scene to see the damage.

Witnessing the aftermath

Witnessing the aftermath

Work resumed on the project two years later, and Tesco Gerrards Cross opened in November 2010, some 14 years after it was commissioned by the company. Despite the protests over the years, it’s proved popular with locals.

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

Quintinshill: Britain’s worst railway disaster 100 years on

Disaster hits the Royal Scots at Quintinshill

Disaster hits the Royal Scots at Quintinshill, Gretna Green

The 498 soldiers of the 7th battalion of the Scots Guards must have had mixed feelings as they boarded their troop train at Larbert in Scotland in the early hours of Saturday 22 May 1915. They were off to war as part of the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition. No doubt they pondered their chances of surviving in battle. Yet within three hours, over 200 were dead and a similar number injured in Britain’s most deadly railway disaster at Quintinshill near Gretna Green.

Quintinshill: the inferno

Quintinshill: the inferno

They were victims of a shocking act of neglect by two signalmen and other railwaymen, who failed to notice that signals had been cleared for their troop train even though a local train was standing in its path. The driver of the soldiers’ train had driven Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, but there was nothing he could do to avoid catastrophe as his train swept downhill at high speed into the local train. The 213 yard long troop train was compressed to a mere 67 yards. A third train ran into the wreckage, killing many survivors. Worse still, the coals of the engines set fire to the gas used to light the ancient wooden coaches causing an inferno that consumed the dead and the living.

A local reporter noted the incongruity of the mixing of human cries for help with the ‘sweet trills of the mavis and blackbird’.

Roll call of the 64 unharmed Royal Scots Quintinshill survivors

Roll call of the 64 unharmed Royal Scots Quintinshill survivors

Quintinshill: the verdict

Quintinshill: the verdict

The accident report laid the blame firmly at the door of the signalmen who had forgotten the presence of the local train under their noses in broad daylight, and the fireman of the local who was in the box to remind the signalmen of the presence of the train. The inspector also strongly urged the abolition of deadly gas lighting on trains. (A danger similar to that posed by hydrogen-filled airships.)

Quintinshill: military funeral in Edinburgh

Quintinshill: military funeral in Edinburgh

The Royal Scots victims were buried in Rosebank cemetery in Edinburgh two days later.

Despite its poignant status as Britain’s most deadly rail crash, the Quintinshill tragedy is less well-known than the Tay bridge disaster or the 1952 Harrow and Wealdstone crash. No doubt the fact it happened in wartime and involved a troop train ensured its anonymity.

PS: there’s an excellent Facebook page about the century commemoration of the disaster at Rosebank cemetery on 23 May 2015.

Winston Churchill, 50 years on

Churchill by Karsh of Ottawa

Winston Churchill, the man who saved Britain

Fifty years ago this week, Britain and the world mourned the man who defied Hitler. Winston Churchill’s long and extraordinary life had ended after 90 years.

It was the end of an era. Few other people’s passing prompt or justify that hackneyed phrase. For Britain, it marked a moment in history perhaps only matched by Queen Victoria’s death 64 years earlier. (How appropriate that the last Briton born during Queen Victoria’s reign, Ethel Lang, died this very week.)

I’ve always been enthralled by Churchill’s life. When my O level history teacher Dr Davies set us an essay in 1979, I deliberately ignored the instructions so I could write more about WSC. I loved ITV’s 1981 Sunday night series on his Wilderness years starring Robert Hardy. Later, I read several Martin Gilbert volumes of the monumental official biography.  Continue reading

Remembering LTC Rolt

Nant Gwernol station, Talyllyn Railway

LTC Rolt’s legacy: the Talyllyn at Nant Gwernol

Few people did more to save Britain’s old railways and canals than LTC Rolt, who died 40 years ago this month. He was one of the founders of the Inland Waterways Association and the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, and ran the Talyllyn in its early summers as the world’s first preserved railway.

Continue reading

British Rail’s corporate identity, 50 years on

I’ve been thinking about corporate identity recently, following PayPal’s brand identity refresh. (Every organisation needs to update its look every now and again.) It’s exactly 50 years since the conception of one of Britain’s most far reaching and longest lasting brand identities: British Rail.

The new face of British Rail

The new face of British Rail

Back in 1964, Britain’s railways were changing. The traditional steam railway was being replaced by a new age of diesel and electric trains. British Railways wanted to create a clean, consistent, modern identity across its trains, stations and even ships. The new identity still looks modern half a century later, and the famous BR symbol is still with us almost 20 years after BR itself disappeared. (You don’t hear it called the arrow of indecision these days.)

Southern Railway S15 Barry scrapyard

Southern Railway and BR identities, Barry scrapyard 1982

The new BR identity scrapped the mock heraldic logos that it had used for its first 16 years – no longer would British trains feature lions. It even appeared on BR’s narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol steam engines well into the 1980s.

British Rail Sealink identity

British Rail’s identity goes to sea

Back in 1964, British Railways was much more than a railway. It ran hotels, cross channel ferries and the new identity applied across land and sea. The shortened name, British Rail, was quickly adopted although the longer title remained the official name to the very end under the British Railways Board, which was abolished in 2001.

Since Britain’s railways were privatised, our trains carry a bewildering array of liveries. The one unifying element is the famous 1964 arrow.

British Rail symbol

British Rail arrows

Note: thanks to Nick Job’s website  www.doublearrow.co.uk for much background on the BR corporate identity, including pages from the original BR identity manuals. See also the late Brian Haresnape’s British Rail 1948 – 1978, a journey by design.

Once in a blue moon at Didcot

Tornado and Sir Nigel Gresley at Didcot

Tornado and Sir Nigel Gresley at Didcot

Owen and I had a wonderful day at Didcot Railway Centre today. We were there for the Once in a Blue Moon event, bringing together three very special locomotives in the very attractive early British Railways blue livery. GWR King Edward II was joined by LNER A4 Sir Nigel Gresley and Tornado, the 21st century Peppercorn A1 pacific.

King Edward II and Tornado

King Edward II and Tornado

My association with King Edward II goes back 35 years to childhood visits to Barry scrapyard, as I explained in my blogpost about the engine’s rebirth at Didcot three years ago. We were also renewing acquaintance with Sir Nigel after our visits to the Great Gathering of the six surviving A4s in York last October. But this was our first introduction to the magnificent Tornado, an engine that amazingly is the same age as Owen, having been steamed for the first time in 2008.

Our youngest steam engine

Our youngest steam engine

Coaling Tornado

Coaling Tornado

Today was made possible by a lot of amazingly dedicated people in the railway preservation movement, including the Great Western Society, the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust and the Sir Nigel Gresley Locomotive Preservation Trust. Thank you.

Sir Nigel Gresley and GWR gas turbine 18000

Sir Nigel Gresley and GWR gas turbine 18000

Finally, it’s remarkable to think that Tornado entered service over 60 years after the GWR ordered a gas turbine locomotive, 18000, as its first move to replace steam traction for express trains.

Dawlish delight: trains running again

Before the storm: Dawlish station, June 2011

Before the storm: Dawlish station, June 2011

It was nice to hear universal praise for Britain’s railways yesterday as trains started running through Dawlish just two months after devastating storms severed the line there.

Brunel’s decision to opt for a coastal route through Devon gave Britain one of its most gloriously scenic rail rides. But the South Devon main line has always been at the mercy of the sea. Network Rail’s engineers have worked wonders getting trains running again, but it’s hard to imagine this is the last time the sea will halt the trains.

On the sea wall, Teignmouth

On the sea wall, Teignmouth

One of my first holiday memories is visiting Teignmouth aged six in 1970. We watched the trains as they headed onto the sea wall. Owen, nearly three, was less impressed by noisy InterCity 125 high speed trains on the sea wall in June 2011. A few days later we took a local train from Teignmouth to Dawlish to savour the view, which proved a mistake. The train was so packed we barely had room to stand, never mind look at the view. A local told us this was par for the course with First Great Western. The old Great Western Railway would have been disgusted.

Brunel was a pioneer. He built the line through Devon using atmospheric trains, propelled by air. But the system proved unreliable and was replaced by steam trains after a year. It cost shareholders a fortune. But Brunel, like his contemporaries, built railways amazingly quickly. He would have been amazed at the snail like progress of 21st century railway building.

On Dawlish station June 2011

On Dawlish station June 2011

The Great Western main line, Dawlish

The Great Western main line, Dawlish

PS: you can see a surviving section of 1840s atmospheric railway at Didcot Railway Centre – below.

The surviving 1840s atmospheric railway pipe and broad gauge track, at Didcot Railway Centre

The surviving 1840s atmospheric railway pipe and broad gauge track, at Didcot Railway Centre

Mallard and her sister A4s: the Great Gathering at York

The six surviving A4 pacifics at National Railway Museum, York

The six surviving A4 pacifics at National Railway Museum, York

Sundays were deadly dull in the 1930s, according to my father Bob Skinner. Yet one Sunday afternoon in 1938, a beautiful blue steam engine called Mallard set a world speed record that stands to this day. This week, the National Railway Museum in York has marked the 75th anniversary of that exploit by reuniting Mallard with its five surviving sister A4 engines: Bittern, Union of South Africa, Sir Nigel Gresley, Dominion of Canada and Dwight D Eisenhower.

It’s hard to describe the stunning spectacle of seeing six A4s lined up together in the  museum’s Great Hall. And the image is even more memorable knowing that Dominion of Canada and Dwight D Eisenhower have made remarkable journeys back across the Atlantic from their North American homes. (They left Britain at the end of steam in the 1960s.)

IMG_5764

Owen in the seat from which Driver Duddington set the world speed record

High speed rail, 1935 style

The A4s are arguably the most beautiful railway engines ever built. Yet they also represented a dramatic move towards high speed train services by a company that was desperately short of money. The LNER was badly hit by the collapse of coal traffic during the Great Depression, but was determined to improve its express services in competition with its great rival, the LMS west coast railway.

The first A4, Silver Link, launched the Silver Jubilee service from London to Newcastle in 1935, with special silver trains to match the engines. Silver Link ran the service alone for the first 13 days, running 536 miles a day without a hitch. The Silver Jubilee cut an hour off the journey time – a 22 per cent reduction. Back in the 1930s, Britain led the world in railways. Today, we’ve been left far behind, arguing over high speed rail, which became common place in France, Germany and other countries more than 20 years ago. (See my 2012 blogpost about the HS2 high speed rail project.)

LNER A4 Bittern, our fastest current steam locomotive

Back to 2013. Mallard’s sister A4 Bittern set a speed record for a preserved steam record this summer: 92mph. That’s quite a feat for a 76 year old engine. Bittern has been given special dispensation to exceed the 75mph speed limit for steam trains on the national rail system. A fitting tribute to the A4s and their creator, LNER chief mechanical engineer Sir Nigel Gresley.

The A4 great gathering is a triumph for the National Railway Museum. Former director Steve Davies had the idea. Canada’s Exporail rail museum and America’s National Railroad Museum in Wisconsin made possible the repatriation of A4s Dominion of Canada and Dwight D Eisenhower. Moveright International brought the engines home free of charge. The owners of Union of South Africa, Bittern and Sir Nigel Gresley added the working A4s to the mix. And Hornby sponsored the entire event. Thanks to them all, entry to this extraordinary event was entirely free.

I’ll end with a photo showing three Sir Nigel Gresleys: a sign showing the man himself with his 100th pacific, A4 4489 in 1937, alongside the engine today, in British Railways blue as 60007.

Three Nigel Gresleys

Three Nigel Gresleys

Raising a glass to Mallard...

Raising a glass to Mallard…

My lost iPad: Chiltern Railways come up trumps again

I left my iPad on a train last week. I had a very busy day and didn’t get the chance to report the loss to Chiltern Railways until I got to Dublin that evening.

The online lost property page suggested it would be at least 10 days before I heard whether it had been handed in. So imagine my delight when Kala from Chiltern called me ten minutes later to tell me they had it.

It was just the latest example of Chiltern Railways’ outstanding customer service culture. Kala told me her day finished at 7pm, but she decided to call me (at 7.30) when she saw my online report to give me the good news.

Thank you so much, Kala!

iPad

The iPad that Chiltern Railways found – the day I got it in 2010

Nice and fast: our Chiltern Railways day out to Birmingham

Chiltern Railways Mainline: next stop Birmingham!

Chiltern Railways Mainline: Birmingham here we come!

Once upon a time, Britain had real trains. Powerful engines pulled rakes of elegant coaches. On most of our main lines this is just a memory, but happily Chiltern Railways has brought back the best of the past on its Mainline service between London and Birmingham – with the welcome addition of modern touches like free wifi and the most stylish toilets I’ve seen on a British train!

We had a family day trip to Birmingham on Mainline yesterday, courtesy of complimentary tickets from Chiltern.

Setting off

Setting off

As a former regular traveller to Chester on Virgin, I was very impressed by the legroom in Chiltern’s Business Zone. (Virgin’s Pendolinos and Voyagers aren’t the roomiest of trains, especially when they’re crowded.) And the big windows show off the advantages of the British Rail Mark III coach.

Chiltern's Mainline Business Zone - plenty of room for your breakfast and practising your writing

Chiltern’s Mainline Business Zone – plenty of room for breakfast and practising your writing

Chiltern’s Mainline service is a lot cheaper than Virgin’s trains from Euston, as the sign at Moor Street cheekily points out…

It’s good to see Chiltern transforming the former Marylebone to Birmingham line, as it was nearly killed by British Railways. Chiltern has invested millions restoring it to mainline standards – gone are the days of holding on tight when your train took the Marylebone line at South Ruislip!

Sadly, today’s Snow Hill is a shadow of the magnificent old station – more of a bus stop than a station for a country’s second city. So I was pleased that our train terminated at Moor Street station, which has been restored as a Great Western terminus, complete with a GWR 28xx heavy freight steam locomotive. It’s a fitting counterpart to Marylebone, London’s most civilised terminus.

Welcome to Birmingham - our Chiltern Railways train on right

Welcome to Birmingham – our Chiltern Railways train on right

We liked Birmingham. We enjoyed the walk to the National Sealife centre (Owen loved running around Victoria Square) and the sealife displays were very impressive – and we did well to visit when Octonauts Peso and Kwazii were visiting… And Brindley Place is really attractive, even when there’s still snow on the ground. (It was rather warmer last time I visited in March 2010.) On the way back, Owen insisted we pop in to Waterstone’s, which is less than 10 minutes’ walk from Moor Street station. Who were we to argue…

Owen and Peso, National Sealife Centre, Birmingham

Owen and Peso, National Sealife Centre, Birmingham

The Great Western lives - Birmingham Moor Street 2013

The Great Western lives – Birmingham Moor Street 2013

We got the 15.55 home, smiling at the group of fellow passengers enjoying a couple of bottles of champagne.

We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Birmingham – and getting there was a big part of the pleasure. Thank you, Chiltern Railways.

PS: the trip was memorable for another reason. It relived a famous film that we love: the 1962 British Transport Films production, Let’s Go to Birmingham, which was a speeded up Blue Pullman trip from London Paddington to the original Snow Hill. It was a real period piece with many steam trains along the route, from the Paddington pilot engine to the steam express that passed the Pullman as it approached Moor Street. There’s a sad sequel as the driver, Ernest Morris, was tragically killed when his diesel train collided with a steam freight train at Dorridge in 1963.

Disclosure: we travelled on complimentary tickets from Chiltern Railways.