Robert Hampton

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23rd March 2013

Train of thought

Virgin Train at Liverpool South ParkwayOddly enough, despite being obsessed with railways, I don’t really mention trains much for the first year or so of the blog. I suspect I may have been trying to project an image of coolness, and I imagined railways would not fit in with that. One of the earliest train posts, in fact, is a fairly grim one – a brief mention of the Ufton Nervet derailment.

Railway safety (or the alleged lack thereof) is a common complaint in the media. Actually Britain’s railway is one of the safest in the world, but that tends to make the fatal accidents, such as the Greyrigg derailment, more newsworthy.

Subsequently, however, I’ve got over any lingering problems with coolness and I now blog about trains to the point of being boring. One development that excited me near the start of the blog’s life was the Liverpool South Parkway interchange, which was developed just a few stations down the line from where I live. I wrote about it in September 2005, when it was nearing completion, then a few months later in June 2006, when it opened. As was my habit at the time, the write-up of the day appeared on a separate page, rather than the blog itself. At first, the station’s usefulness was limited by the refusal of the regional operators to stop their trains there, but over the years more and more destinations have been served. The station is now a useful facility, and has been the starting point for many of my recent rail adventures.

lsp-certificateThe fractured nature of Britain’s passenger railway, with its multitude of franchises, means that every few years a new company will take over from the old. In practice this generally means that the trains are painted a different colour, staff get new uniforms and little actually changes on the ground. Such was the case with the Merseyrail network, when Arriva Trains handed over to the Serco/NedRailways consortium. Quite a few people were happy to see the end of Arriva, although subsequent events – including a damaging strike on Grand National Day in 2005 and a mysterious problem with the wheel lathe which led to days of disruption in 2007 – have dented the Dutch operator’s reputation somewhat in my eyes.

One franchise changeover which did make a lot of headlines was the bombshell announcement that Virgin Trains had lost the West Coast franchise. A lot of the howls of protest seemed to be based entirely on the fact that one of FirstGroup’s other franchises, First Capital Connect, was rubbish; because a commuter service linking Bedford and Brighton is EXACTLY THE SAME as a long-distance Inter-City operation. Virgin didn’t help by unleashing a massive PR campaign, attacking both FirstGroup and the Government, and then instigating court proceedings, plunging the franchise into uncertainty. To be honest, I was fairly indifferent:-

So, if West Coast is no longer Virgin, does that mean it’s truly fucked? There does seem to be a deep sense of foreboding about the future. I have sampled First’s Scotrail, Transpennine and Great Western franchises, and I found no fault with any of them (judging by my Twitter feed, I’m just about the only person who came away satisfied). In any event, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of how well the new franchise will do.

I suppose it made sense for Virgin to fight their corner, but for me, from the outside, it looked like Branson was throwing his toys out of the pram.

My suspicion of Virgin’s PR nonsense actually dates back to a few years earlier, when they made a record-breaking run from Glasgow to London, in 3 hours 55 minutes:

It’s an impressive feat (kudos to the driver and all the rail staff involved), but as the discussion on uk.railway notes, the previous record of 4 hours 14 minutes was set by a train which stopped en route.

Another reason I held a grudge was that a competitor to Virgin, Wrexham & Shropshire, had closed down in 2011. W&S offered fine dining in refurbished ex-BR rolling stock, but the journey time to London was much slower. As a result, they simply failed to win enough custom from their bigger, brasher rival. It was a sad loss for those of us who had hoped that “old railway” values could triumph in the 21st century.

Virgin emerged triumphant in the West Coast debacle too, when the shock announcement came in October 2012 that the award to FirstGroup had been cancelled and the Government was “reviewing” the franchising process. I was saddened, however, that the review would not consider the best option for the rail network, nationalisation:-

This is not mere ideology at work: the figures speak for themselves. In 1994, inefficient lumbering British Rail received £1,627m in subsidy from Government. In 2005, the smart businessmen and entrepreneurs of the private sector got £4,593m. When inflation is taken into account, that is double the amount British Rail received. At the same time, the fares paid by passengers have also risen dramatically. BR was starved of funding and did the best it could. The private operators who took over have milked the system for every penny they can get.

Cross Country HSTSadly it seems that the status quo will persist.

Big changes will be taking place on the rail network over the next few years. The InterCity Express Project will see a massive new fleet of express trains come to the network in the next decade. I blogged about the plans in 2009 (when the train was known as “Super Express”) and bemoaned the fact that a lot of the trains would be diesel-powered rather than electric. The Government obviously listened (no, really) as they subsequently announced a massive electrification programme, including several lines around Liverpool.

One sad casualty of these developments will be the InterCity 125 High Speed Train, which is expected to disappear from Britain’s railway in a few years time, after clocking up half a century of service.

While I eagerly awaited these new developments, elsewhere some people were upset at any attempt to upgrade the rail network. Frinton-on-Sea residents strongly resisted attempts by Network Rail to replace their old-fashioned level crossing gates with automatic barriers. I was not very sympathetic:

I watched the BBC documentary about Frinton last year (bits remain on YouTube if you’re interested), which portrayed the elderly residents of Frinton, and the gate campaigners in particular, as a bunch of confused old people who are befuddled by the modern world. I’m sure that is a completely unfair portrayal. It was funny, though.

Recent events have caused me to be slightly more sympathetic; as I write this blog, there are renovation works taking place at my local station, Aigburth, and local residents are up in arms about the removal of the station’s Victorian platform canopy. I will blog about that kerfuffle shortly, once these retrospective blogs have concluded.

Another development attracting a storm of protest is High Speed 2, the new express railway line linking London and Birmingham. Protesters were out in force, objecting to the expense, the destruction of the countryside and (most importantly) the fact that the line would run past their back gardens.

Although the prospect of a new railway is exciting to me, I did still have some quibbles with HS2, quite apart from any NIMBY issues.

Firstly, I’m worried that fares will be too expensive for the average punter. The West Coast Main Line is rapidly becoming unaffordable to those unable to book a cheap Advance ticket or use London Midland’s slower service, and it looks like the new line could be even dearer. It would be a shame if HS2 turns out to be usable only by the well-off.

Secondly, I worry that investment in the “classic” lines will dwindle as attention is focused on the glossy TGV-esque trains.

Liverpool Central platformWe’re going to have to wait many years for HS2 and electrification, but other improvements have happened already. Liverpool Central was named in 2009 as one of the 10 worst major railway stations in the country. It was hard to disagree with the analysis. A dingy interior and crowded spaces conspired to make the station fairly unpleasant to use.

The long-promised refurb finally arrived in 2012, leading to total closure of the station for a six-month period. I use Central nearly every day, so the closure was a big inconvenience for me:

Will all these works be worth the wait? I hope so. I feel a very strong sense of ownership with regard to Central. I’ve spent more time loitering there than I care to think about. It will be great to march in there, six months from now, and go, “ooh, isn’t it shiny!”

Shiny it certainly was, but did it solve the station’s frequent overcrowding problems? Let’s just say that I’m still undecided.

Last, but not least, we come to my own adventures on trains. The earliest mention of it is a summer trip around the Cambrian Coast Line in 2003. These days I would have got several blog posts out of it. Back then, my readers had to settle for a few paragraphs. Shame. Another early trip, on the Settle-Carlisle Line, didn’t make it into the blog at all, but was relegated to a separate page.

However, I have become more adventurous, and even growing out of my 16-25 Railcard failed to discourage me. In 2006, I bought a North West Rover ticket and explored the rail network for a week.

In 2010, I rode Scotland’s amazing West Highland Line, which was an experience and a half, to say the least:

We stopped at stations with no visible purpose, located in isolated spots where the only sign of civilisation was the station itself: a friendly red double-arrow logo standing like a beacon amidst the bleak landscape.

The return journey, by steam train, was even more exciting.

While in Scotland, I also got the chance to ride the Glasgow Subway. I took some pictures en route, unwittingly breaking the Subway bye-laws in the process, as Strathclyde Partnership for Transport tried to ban photography. Fortunately wiser counsels prevailed.

Photo of First Great Western Night Riviera Sleeper coachThe best trip so far though, has to be my visit to Cornwall in March 2012, when I rode the Night Riviera overnight sleeper service:

As departure time nears, more passengers arrive and the sense of anticipation builds. I notice a woman with what I assume is her daughter. The little girl cannot contain her excitement; she jumps up and down and giggles. I know exactly how she feels.

The overnight trip from Penzance to London Paddington was a fantastic experience; one I wish to do again. There’s also the tantalising prospect of the Fort William sleeper, in the future.

More recently, I started The Station Master blog, all about my quest to visit the UK’s strangest, sparsely served and loveliest railway stations. It’s been on a hiatus over winter, but it is now back in business. Some of my future train adventures will be on that blog, while the remainder will end up here, as always.

In the meantime, I will leave you with an amazing train sight from earlier this year: a steam train on the London Underground:

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