I love my Brompton Electric bike

Have [electric] bike, will travel. Teddington Lock

I didn’t plan to get an electric bike. I had thought of upgrading my 16 year old Brompton. But an impulse test ride on the Brompton Electric at the Brompton Junction store in London’s Covent Garden had me smitten. A week later, I collected my own Brompton Electric from Cycle Surgery and began my electric dream.

Go with the fold… Richmond Park lunchtime ride

As a Brompton owner since 2002, I was familiar with the clever design. The electric version is a classic Brompton, with the same simple fold, which is perfect for journeys when you use the train for part of your commute. But the powered Brompton is even heavier, so you’ll won’t want to carry this bike very far. (I’m now far more familiar with the lift at Gerrards Cross station!)

I got the bike in February, when we had an unseasonal heatwave, with temperatures over 20C! I took advantage by going for lunchtime rides along the Thames from Richmond to Teddington and through Richmond Park.

Brompton’s natural habitat

But this is a bike designed for commuting. I have meetings in London at least once a week, and have loved cycling to the station to get the train from Gerrards Cross, and then completing the journey from Marylebone to Victoria or Tottenham Court Road. The Brompton is a perfect city bike: I can weave in and out of traffic and the electric boost gives me an unfair advantage as the lights turn green. (My favourite moment was beating a Porsche away from the lights!)

Is it perfect? No. There are times when the power seems slow to kick in, although most of the time this isn’t a problem. I’ve experienced a few rattles and a part fell off (from the City bag In think) today and I have no idea how to put it back on. There are also times when I change gear and nothing happens but applying more force to the gear lever tends to sort things out. But these are minor niggles. I love this bike. For many people, the biggest problem will be the price. You’ll be saying goodbye to at least £2,500 for this bike. I think it’s worth it if your commute includes a train journey. You might disagree, even if you can afford to spend that kind of money on a bike.

Bags of room…

The Brompton Electric comes with a clever essentials bag that contains the removable battery. You can pop the charger, your phone and other essentials in it. I splashed out on the City Bag for commuting – you’ll need it if you don’t want to carry a laptop on a backpack. It’s cleverly designed with the two pockets at the back and side pockets as well. The battery fits in the middle and clips into place. It’s not as big as it looks inside because the battery takes up a chunk of space but I’ve not found this a problem. The bag and laptop are heavy, so you will be grateful for that electric motor!

Bromptons have small wheels, which means you have to be careful to avoid potholes and other obstacles. I learnt a lesson early on: take care not to charge curbs as you may get a puncture, as I did in High Wycombe. I also discovered that you need a spanner to take the wheel off to mend a puncture.

Brompton has adopted these three icons showing the famous fold. You’ll find it on various components on the bike, which is a nice touch. I first saw them displayed on the old Brompton factory in Brentford, west London, on my (car) commute. I used to enjoy seeing Brompton employees cycling home as I drove past. I was sorry when the company moved, although it’s heart-warming that Brompton still makes its bikes in London.

My Brompton in Horse Guards Road, with 10 Downing Street behind

I love cycling, and was thrilled this year to complete Land’s End to John O’Groats on my Cannondale Synapse road bike. But there’s something very special about flying around the city on a Brompton Electric. It gives me a lot of pleasure, especially as I know I’m avoiding the crowds yet getting to my destination faster than on the tube.

Happiness is a Brompton on a sunny day

I’ll end with a photo that sums up the joy of this special bike. This was on an early lunchtime ride in that February heatwave. I can’t wait for my next Brompton Electric ride!

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.