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.

Saundersfoot

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.

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

IMG_3368.jpg

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.

IMG_3376.JPG

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.

IMG_3232

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.

IMG_7285

IMG_7286

IMG_7287

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

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.

Continue reading

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!

iPad

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.