In praise of LNER Flying Scotsman

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Flying Scotsman: on the footplate of 93 year old legend

Owen and I today had a priceless experience – stepping onto the footplate of the world’s most famous railway engine, Flying Scotsman, at York’s magnificent National Railway Museum.  The 93 year old engine has just been restored to mainline working after a multi-million pound overhaul.

We have got accustomed to footplate visits to famous LNER engines – we visited all six surviving A4 pacifics during NRM’s unforgettable Great Gathering reunion in 2013. And I confess that Flying Scotsman has never inspired me in the same way as Mallard and her sister A4s. But I didn’t think it was right to spend time at the museum this weekend without queueing to stand on the Scotsman’s footplate. I’m so glad we did.

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Scotsman, BR-vintage

This, as NRM’s marvellous Return of the Scotsman exhibition explains, was the world’s first superstar locomotive. It was a film star from its earliest days. It was the first engine to exceed 100 miles an hour officially. It began the non-stop London to Edinburgh Flying Scostman service in 1928, beating its own 392 mile achievement by recording the world’s longest non-stop steam run – 429 miles – in Australia in 1989.

I think the engine looks wonderful in its British Railways livery, with smoke defectors. I may be biased – this was how it looked the year I was born, when it was withdrawn from everyday service.

The National Railway Museum is a wonderful place to visit – and it’s free to enter. I first visited in 1979, and now love taking Owen whenever we visit York, one of our favourite cities.

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Posing with an icon

It’s amazing to think that when we first took Owen to the NRM in September 2009, aged one, the Scotsman was in pieces at an early stage of the overhaul. Here are a few photos I took on that visit.

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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.

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In praise of the new Routemaster bus

TfL's new Routemaster London bus

Ticket to ride: London’s new Routemaster

I thought I’d missed my bus in London today. But I was in luck. It was a new Routemaster, the new version of the classic London bus. So I was able to jump onboard while it was halted in traffic.

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50,000 miles in my Mini

50,000 miles up

50,000 miles up

I love my Mini Cooper. I blogged affectionately about it when it proved brilliant in a blizzard a month after I bought it in 2009. Today, it passed the milestone of 50,000 miles on my drive home from work.

These milestones are trivial yet memorable. I remember where I was when I completed the first 10,000 miles. (Passing Swindon on the M4 on the way to Penarth in November 2010.)

I was keen to capture tonight’s moment, and fortunately I had just left the M40 and could park to take the photo. Yes, I know I should get out more….

The Mini has always been great fun to drive. I can weave in and out of traffic – which always makes me smile. Here’s to the next 10,000 miles!

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!

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

The Beeching axe, 50 years on

The axeman cometh

The axeman cometh

Can you name the 1963 boss of British Steel, British Gas or Marks & Spencer? I thought not. But you can almost certainly name the 1963 chairman of British Railways. His name? Dr Richard Beeching.

Dr Beeching wields his axe. Photos: PA, via ITV website

Dr Beeching wields his axe. Photos: PA, via ITV website

Beeching’s fame – or notoriety – is solely based on a report published 50 years ago today, on 27 March 1963. The Reshaping of British Railways proposed that 6,000 miles of railway and over 2,000 stations should be closed to reduce BR’s heavy losses. It reflected the rise in car ownership, and the view that the railways were in permanent, irreversible decline.

Railway closures didn’t begin with Beeching. Thousands of miles of track were closed between the wars, especially in 1930. But Beeching took things to a new level. It’s hard to argue with many of the closures – a lot of trains on rural branches carried a handful of passengers. Yet his reasoning was often simplistic, and many unprofitable lines were the victims of deliberate neglect, as rail historian Adrian Vaughan showed in his classic account of the last days of the steam railway, Signalman’s Twilight.

Beeching’s axe went beyond winding branches with a steam engine pulling one or two carriages. Beeching axed the last complete main line to London – the Great Central line to Sheffield – and the Waverley route through Scotland’s border country, not to mention the Varsity line between Oxford and Cambridge via Milton Keynes.

Today’s rail bosses are looking to restore at least some of these lost links.

Few realise that Beeching had a sequel. ‘Beeching 2’ in 1965 would have closed parts of Britain’s most important mainlines, including the Great Western west of Plymouth. It didn’t happen, as the backlash forced British Railways to relent. (A similar reaction torpedoed the proposed Serpell cuts of 1983. As a result, few remember Sir David Serpell, unlike Dr Beeching.)

The way we were: British Railways 1963

The way we were: British Railways 1963

It’s hard to imagine how different Britain’s railways were in 1963, the year I was born. Many ancient Victorian and Edwardian steam engines were still in service. Quite a few stations close to London were still lit by oil or gas light. Dr Beeching had a vision of a modern intercity and freight railway, which still lives on today. His greatest failure was to think the railways could not flourish again. His folly has been shown as the number of passengers has almost doubled in the past 20 years.

Dr Richard Beeching lost the PR battle. Yet he put a lot of effort into explaining his proposals. Here’s the rail boss whose name we still remember 50 years on, explaining his axe.

Is your car connected to the internet?

I was intrigued by a BBC story this week suggesting that by 2014 every new car would be connected to the internet.

Readers were quick to rubbish the idea. To take just one example from Ziggyboy:

“I want to drive a car not a computer. If I want to use the internet I sit at my desk and if I want to go somewhere I drive my car. Will there be a new law about using your computer whilst driving. Not that it would make any difference as lots of people still use their mobiles at the wheel and are not caught. I for one won’t be interested I just want a car that get’s me from A to B that’s all.”

Yet I can see real benefits in having a connected car. I’d love my car to pay the Severn Bridge toll for me, saving time at the toll booth. What about a satnav that shows traffic on the map and updates to show diversions if the M4 is closed? A car park finder that will find and pay for a space for you?

Gimmicks? Perhaps. But I’m pretty sure that in 10 years we’ll take all this for granted.

Happy 150th birthday, London Underground

Going Underground

Going Underground

The London Underground celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday. On 9 January 1863, a Metropolitan Railway steam train made its way from Paddington to Farringdon to launch the world’s first underground railway.

The tube has played a vital part in London life: commuter network, bomb shelter and icon. It remains a precious symbol of life in the capital, even for those of us who don’t live in London.

It’s hard to imagine sulphurous steam trains operating in the claustrophobic stations and tunnels – amazingly, some Victorians thought the smoke health-giving, like going to a spa. In time, electricity made the Underground smoke-free. (And the first true ‘tube’, the City & South London Railway running from the City to Stockwell, was electric from the start in 1890.)

The Underground’s iconic status owes a lot to its long-lived corporate identity. The roundel is over a century old, and the typeface (although later modified) dates from the dark days of the Great War. Frank Beck created his famous map in 1933 as the Underground began life as a publicly owned institution: the London Passenger Transport Board, better known as London Transport.

The 1930s were in many ways the tube’s golden era with constant expansion, stunning architecture and new trains that served two generations and survived a world war. (I started working in London in 1987 as London Transport brought back 1938 trains to cope with demand.) Under Frank Pick, London Transport led the world as an integrated system of underground trains, buses and trams, as well as a patron of industrial art and design.

That public ownership has long outlived the nationalised British Railways – whose celebrated 1960s corporate identity has given way to an explosion of liveries and typefaces, destroying the very idea of a common network. In today’s Guardian, Andrew Martin rightly describes the tube as the people’s railway. Whether you’re rich or poor, you’ll usually find the tube the fastest, most convenient way to get around the city.

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Despite its name, most of the Underground is actually overground. Amersham (above, with then one year old Owen with a 1962 train – built the year of the first Beatles single) is at the country end of the Met Line. Trains from Amersham only head into the tunnel at Finchley Road, a handful of miles from the 1863 line at Baker Street. That 1962 unit was one of the trains that replaced the last passenger steam services on the Underground after almost a century. Curiously, London Transport was still using steam for engineering trains as late as 1971 with former Great Western pannier tanks.

Finally, as Britain (apparently) faces a cold snap, here’s one of those 1960s Met line trains arriving at Farringdon on 17 December 2010.

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

The wonderful London Transport Museum

Going Underground: London Transport Museum

The railways created modern London: first the mainline and suburban lines, followed by the Underground.

London was the birthplace of the underground railway in 1863 with the Metropolitan Railway from Paddington to Farringdon. Three decades later the city created the first deep level ‘tube’, the City and South London Railway, which is now part of the Northern Line.

The wonderful London Transport Museum in Covent Garden tells this fascinating story. It’s extraordinary how many relics of the earliest days survive, including a City and South London carriage. The museum is very hands-on: today, Owen, four, drove a Jubilee Line train. (Last year he drove a bus and Met Line train.)

Tube trains have very long lives. This autumn saw the end of the Met Line A stock trains, which replaced steam on the Met LIne in 1961. When I first worked in London in 1987, London Transport had just reintroduced 1938 tube trains to cope with surging demand. They’re still in use on Network Rail on the Isle of Wight.

Highly recommended.

Here’s my video of our visit in October 2011.

Maps: icon to icons

The maps we loved: the Vale of Glamorgan 1970s, mapped by Ordnance Survey

Last month, Apple came under fire for the poor quality of its new Apple Maps app for iPhone and iPad. The reaction showed how our idea of what a map is has utterly changed. A visitor from the 1970s would be baffled by the idea of a computer company producing a map – let alone the concept of having a map on a phone. They’d have thought it as crazy as a television making a cup of tea.

The map that opens this blog post is a section of the oldest map I possess. It’s the very first Ordnance Survey metric map of the Vale of Glamorgan and the Rhondda. (This 1:50,000 series replaced the much-loved 1 inch OS series.) It’s striking (for Wales) for its English-only place and geographical names: Cowbridge, for example, is unaccompanied by its Welsh name, Y Bont Faen, unlike on more recent OS maps. The map is titled The Rhondda, which is a curiously misleading description of a sheet that covers almost the whole of the Vale as well as many of the valleys of the Glamorgan uplands.

I was given this map as a birthday present in 1977. I used to have the earlier 1 inch OS map of Cardiff (a very different place 35 years ago), along with an even older map of Cirencester, showing the railway lines that closed in the 1960s. (I had fun comparing it with the 1990s equivalent.)

Paper maps have a special quality. In the dark, cold nights of January 1995, I plotted a cycle holiday from Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester, to the English Channel at Beer. It was a warming experience lying by the fire choosing villages and quiet coastal roads to explore the following summer – with a beer. Five months later, I took pride in the fact my friend Richard and I got lost just once in 325 miles when we followed that fireside-plotted trail.

But I mustn’t sound too wedded to the joy of the old over the new. I carried a dozen OS maps on that holiday. Twice we arrived at a promised (by the map) pub to find it didn’t exist. How we’d have loved the idea of carrying maps for the whole journey in our pockets. Along with B&B lists and reviews, weather reports, newspapers, music players and books… It would have seemed a miracle.

The BBC news website’s magazine (a great read, by the way) has a fascinating feature on the subject today. It’s a tad sceptical about the move to electronic maps:

“Digital maps may be shrinking our brains. Richard Dawkins has suggested that it may have been the drawing of maps, rather than the development of language, that boosted our brains over that critical hurdle that other apes failed to jump.”

That seems to overstate the case. But I do vividly remember drawing my own spidery maps of Lakeside and Cyncoed, Cardiff, soon after we moved home to Wales when I was seven in 1971. It was my way of making sense of my new hinterland. Most of the houses were less than 10 years old. Street names such as Farm Drive hinted at a more rural past (and there was a surviving farm house close to where Eastern Avenue now crosses Lake Road East).

Lakeside, Cardiff – by Google Maps. My version was more spidery

I’ll end on a cycling note. As I blogged in February, I love having digital maps on my handlebars, in the form of my Garmin Edge 800 GPS. But I’ll still treasure my printed maps. They’re part of my past – and my future.