Taking the train in the age of coronavirus

Have mask, will travel

I took a train for the first time in over five months this week. What a contrast to that last journey in March, before Britain’s coronavirus lockdown began.

Our short (eight minute) journey from Tenby to Saundersfoot was simple enough. We remembered to take our masks. The Transport for Wales guard challenged passengers who weren’t wearing masks, although the man sitting opposite us remained unmasked as we got off.

Social distancing on board

Many of the seats were out of use to ensure social distancing. Fortunately this two carriage train was not busy.

Sign of the times

To give Transport for Wales credit, the information signs on the train and the platforms were very clear.

The masked travellers

As we alighted at Saundersfoot station, it struck me that the town was likely to be a decent walk away. So it proved. I was reminded of tales of Victorian travellers leaving their trains at stations with the ‘Road’ suffix on a wild Welsh night not realising they were miles from the town in the station name. A practice followed by budget airlines 125 years later…

Remember Tryweryn…

I was intrigued to come across this sign on our two kilometre walk to Saundersfoot . ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (Remember Tryweryn’) recalls the infamous flooding of Capel Celyn in North Wales to provide a reservoir for the English city of Liverpool. Parliament voted for the project, but not a single Welsh MP voted for it. The scandal was a major boost to Welsh nationalism and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language society) in the 1960s and afterwards.


We finally reached the sea at Saundersfoot. This peaceful town was once a major port, exporting coal from the Pembrokeshire coalfield. We walked through a tunnel that was built for the narrow gauge coal tramway. A lovely mix of industrial history and rural beauty – not uncommon in Wales.

The making of a railway: watching the birth of HS2

Cutting through the Chilterns: Looking towards High Wycombe from Loudwater tunnel: SWA Newton

At the end of the 19th century, a photographer called SWA Newton documented a unique event: the creation of a new mainline railway from Sheffield to London. The Great Central Railway tore through the medieval heart of Leicester and Nottingham, and as a student in 1980s Leicester I was fascinated to find Newton’s photos of familiar sights being built just over 80 years earlier. Sadly, almost all that magnificent line was closed in the 1960s.

The Great Central was the creation of Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of a high speed railway linking the north of England with France through a channel tunnel. Ironically, the politicians who pushed HS2 scrapped a link between HS2 and HS1 – the channel tunnel rail link – to save money. How desperately short sighted.

I thought of SWA Newton and the birth of the Great Central in 2010 when I learned that the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway would pass through our village. As you’d expect, there are few supporters of the line here. That’s partly because of the disruption that the construction will cause (though for me that’s been minimal so far) but also because people in Buckinghamshire won’t get any benefit from the line. It will still be quicker for us to get to Birmingham via the Chiltern line than going to London to get a train on HS2.

The line will pass through our village in a 10 mile long tunnel. That will spare the Misbourne valley although part of me thinks it’s a shame that travellers won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of the southern Chilterns. Railways blend in to the landscape unlike airports or 12-lane motorways.

I’ll never be a 21st century SWA Newton, but I do want to witness and record the work being carried out on HS2 around our village. So over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been to see the two main sites: ventilation shafts for the Chiltern tunnel.

It’s official….
On Bottom House Farm Lane, between Chalfont St Giles and Amersham

To get to the Chalfont St Giles site, I cycled down a lane for the first time, even though it’s barely a mile from our front door. I wouldn’t like to drive down Bottom House Farm Lane in a big car (it’s very narrow and badly potholed) but it was wonderful on a mountain bike. In the photo above, you can see spoil from the works. I was captivated by the forgotten valley, with its handsome farm buildings and classic Chiltern rounded hills and woodland – and with now ubiquitous red kites circling overhead.

The site on a map
The route of HS2 (in tunnel), Misbourne valley
Ready for action, Bottom House Farm Lane

HS2 has published a lot of information about the project and its impacts on its website. See HS2 in Bucks and Oxon. Ironically, some of the places mentioned such as Calvert, Twyford, Finmere and Brackley were on the route of the Great Central Railway. I blogged about this irony in 2012 here.

The access road, Bottom House Farm Lane

The contractors are building an access road alongside Bottom House Farm lane to take the construction lorries to the site of the shaft. You can see that it’s like a dual carriageway alongside the narrow country lane, although it will be restored to nature after work is finished.

Bottom House Farm Lane sights

I had no idea that this tiny lane and valley were so picturesque. This is a few hundred metres from the main London to Amersham road.

The view from the London road
Warning: railway works ahead
HS2 travellers won’t see this: the route passes under Chalfont St Giles village centre here

As I said earlier, the HS2 route passes under the heart of our village, Chalfont St Giles. This is the Misbourne in the centre of the village; the tunnel passes under here.

The access road to the Chalfont St Peter tunnel site

This is the other major site near our village. The HS2 contractors have built an access road for construction traffic to the the Chalfont St Peter tunnel shaft.

Closer to London, HS2 is forcing the closure of Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre (HOAC). Our son Owen has just enjoyed a wonderful summer water sports course at HOAC, and previously camped at HOAC with Chalfont St Giles Scouts. Owen and Karen were distressed to see the destruction that HS2 is causing at HOAC. We hope HOAC will move to a new site, as seems to be the case. Meanwhile, this is what the HS2 viaduct in the area will look like.

Back to where I began. The remaining parts of the Great Central (and the Great Central and Great Western Joint line through Beaconsfield and High Wycombe) blend beautifully into the countryside. Admittedly, electric lines with their overhead wires aren’t quite so unobtrusive. But I recall my view of the West Coast Mainline in the fells of northern England last year, contrasting with the eyesore of the parallel M6. True, it was better looking in the days of steam, but I knew which I preferred.

The northern fells. Spot the West Coast mainline…

I’ll end as I began, with a couple of wonderful SWA Newton images from the birth of the older high speed rail line, the Great Central and associated joint line with the Great Western. Those construction workers – navvies as they were called in the past, recalling the men who built the canals – were photographed at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield.

I respect the protests of those who object to HS2. (Do read the comment below from Janey, who lives on Bottom House Farm Lane, about the impact the work is having on her family and other residents.) And the claims that this is Britain’s new railway are strained – it will do nothing for Wales. But I think it’s time that the country that invented railways moved beyond the Georgian and Victorian network that shaped and the constrained the nation. It’s almost 60 years since Japan introduced the Shinkansen bullet train, and 40 years since France began TGV services. Great Britain is catching up.

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.)


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…