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.

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5th January 2013


Continuing on from yesterday’s review of the year-type thing.

BBC Television CentreJuly (actually, the end of June, but I wrote the blog post on 1st July) saw me make a trip to the legendary BBC Television Centre to watch a recording of Pointless. It was a most enjoyable experience, even if the Central African Republic didn’t come up as an answer. I’m seriously tempted to go back as a contestant.

Liverpool’s Festival Gardens reopened after many years of dereliction. The government announced a whole load of railway improvement schemes, coupled with further plans to price-gouge passengers. I bemoaned the tendency for reviews to oversimplify things with a simple score.

I fretted about Global Warming (and now, after experiencing a week of unseasonably mild weather, I’m even more worried). Heat of a different kind in Liverpool city centre, as preachers continued to claim everyone was going to Hell.

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3rd October 2012

Rationalisation for Renationalisation
Posted by at 10.29pm | In the News, Trains | 1 response

British Rail logoJust after midnight the news came down that the new West Coast rail franchise has been cancelled due to “flaws” in the bidding process. The entire process will have to be restarted, costing taxpayers tens of millions of pounds.

Richard Branson is thrilled, as are many customers of Virgin Trains – a company which has inexplicably become very popular since people realised it might be going away for ever.

Myself, I’m not particularly pleased either way. I hold no torch for Virgin (or FirstGroup) – I just want a national rail network that is reliable, comfortable and affordable; a good alternative to polluting cars and planes. The current system delivers this occasionally, but not consistently.

While it’s nice to see the Government admit, finally, that the current franchising system is a mess, I wish more radical solutions would be looked at beyond mere reform. In short, I think we should be looking at renationalisation of the passenger railway network.

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15th August 2012

Branson’s Pickle
Posted by at 8.15pm | In the News, Trains | 3 responses

Virgin Train at Liverpool South ParkwayThe West Coast Main Line, linking London with Scotland via Crewe (with branches to Liverpool and Manchester) has faced big upheavals in recent years, with passengers enduring many years of engineering work to upgrade the line and its trains. It doesn’t seem like long since that work finished, but another big change is now on the horizon, as Virgin Trains – who have run the service since privatisation in 1997 – make way for FirstGroup.

The news that Virgin have lost the franchise to operate trains on the West Coast Main Line came as no surprise to anyone, as the news leaked out nearly a week ago. Still, the official confirmation at 7am this morning prompted a big response, including an angry reaction from Richard Branson.

There was a mass outpouring on Twitter, with hundreds of tweets to @VirginTrains commiserating with them about the end of their tenure, and many more heaping scorn on FirstGroup. It seems that Branson comes a close second to Jobs in nurturing brand loyalty.

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16th July 2012

Bright spark
Posted by at 11.06pm | Trains | No responses

A rather gruesome Cameron-Clegg press conference framed the announcement that a vast swathe of railway schemes are to go ahead between now and 2019.

The options outlined by the Department for Transport are “illustrative” – in other words, they’re more of a shopping list than actual finalised plans, but still they’re quite extensive.

Electrification is the big news: there are now plans to electrify the Midland Main Line and the main line to Swansea, as well as commuter lines around Cardiff. The Northern Hub scheme will go ahead with big capacity improvements around Manchester, with knock-on benefits for Liverpool, Leeds and the smaller towns in-between.

Locally, there is a welcome boost for the Transpennine Express service from Liverpool, which could be doubled in frequency and operated with electric trains, running to Newcastle rather than Scarborough as they do now. Liverpool could also get a direct link to Buxton and an improved service to Sheffield as part of the Northern Hub scheme. Generally, there will be more trains running in and out of Lime Street, which will be welcomed by commuters currently shoehorned into overcrowded Pacers.

You would think I would be happy about all this investment. I am, but I worry about where the money is coming from. These schemes will cost over £9 billion, and the promised efficiency savings at the railway (which, so far, seem to amount to London Midland closing a load of ticket offices and not much else) are being very slow in coming.

This means that the passenger will be paying, through increased fares. We already have at least two years of ticket price rises of inflation+3% coming up, at a time when many people already consider train fares to be uncomfortably expensive.

Unless you’re well-organised and plan your journey sufficiently far ahead to get an Advance ticket (or opt for the slower London Midland service), it now costs nearly 80 quid return to go from Liverpool to London. That’s the off-peak fare. If you need to travel during “peak” times (which now, thanks to Virgin tightening the restrictions, means any train arriving at Euston before 11.30am!) you could end up paying £277 – a fare already out of reach of many people.

The proposals outlined today could be a big step towards a better railway network. It would be a shame if those benefits were to be only available to the well-off.

30th January 2011

Shropshire Star
Posted by at 6.18pm | Trains | 2 responses

On Friday, the UK rail industry said goodbye to the Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway Company, which was killed off after its parent company concluded that it would never turn a profit.

Wrexham and Shropshire train interiorI never experienced the joys of this company’s trains, although I’d hoped to try and arrange a ride sometime this year (procrastination FAIL).

The new Wrexham-Marylebone service was launched in 2008, restoring direct trains to London from Wrexham, forty years after they were withdrawn. For passengers, WSMR promised a railway experience akin to that of yesteryear, using refurbished ex-BR coaches with a spacious, roomy layout. Cooked meals, freshly prepared on board (no microwaved bacon baps here) were served at your seat. All this for far less than the fares of rival operator, Virgin Trains.

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7th January 2009

Posted by at 8.21pm | Trains | No responses

Dear Network Rail,

I’m going to London by train on the 23rd, so please get this mess sorted out before then. Thanks 🙂

Lots of love,

14th December 2008

The Most Advanced Passenger Train
Posted by at 5.20pm | Trains | No responses

So, how did day 1 of the Super duper new West Coast Main Line timetable go? I have no first hand experience, but over on uk.railway one person reported that his train from Lime Street to London this morning was cancelled due to… overrunning engineering works. Hm.

Elsewhere it was a happier story, with Stone station in Staffordshire getting its first train in five years, after its services were “bustituted” in 2003 to allow the upgrade work to take place.

Network Rail can’t quite shake the engineering work bug though, as there’s one last hurrah the weekend after Christmas.

7th November 2008

Branson Pickle
Posted by at 8.15pm | Trains | No responses

Liverpool to London with Virgin Trains? For £10.60 return? Yes, I think I will buy that. 🙂

12th September 2008

Good, Bad

GOOD: Going to London for a day out.
BAD: Having to get up at stupid o’clock (aka 5.30am) to get the first Merseyrail train into town to connect with an early morning Virgin Train at Lime Street.

GOOD: Virgin allow Off-Peak tickets bought with Railcards to be used on any train without time restriction.
BAD: Everyone else gets charged a hugely expensive fare, meaning that my train (the 07.07 to London, supposedly Virgin’s “flagship” Liverpool service) was half-empty.

GOOD: The Science Museum has a great exhibition on the development of British technology in household appliances.
BAD: The Science Museum cafe promised sandwiches “from £1.50”, but I certainly couldn’t find any at that price (nice Danish pastry, though).

GOOD: Meeting up with a friend I haven’t seen for ages and strolling alongside the River Thames with her.
BAD: Seeing things which looked really interesting (Tate Modern, Globe Theatre, HMS Belfast) but not having time to visit them. I need to book a hotel and spend a few days there.

GOOD: Having the foresight to buy an Oyster card online from TfL’s website, meaning I saved money and beat the horrendous queues at Euston Underground station.
BAD: Slipping on the wet surface at Boston Manor tube station and falling down the stairs.

GOOD: Reaching Euston station early enough to catch an earlier train home than the one I had planned.
BAD: Did not have a seat reservation for this service so had to fight my way past the Friday night crowds to the non-reserved coach where I got a seat — just.

GOOD: The train toilets were clean.
BAD: Opening the train toilet door to find a woman in “full flow”, as it were, because she had forgotten to push the “Lock” button.