Sunday, 8 December 2019

Letting the train take the strain

I have to say that much as I enjoy driving, trains remain  my favourite form of transport, particularly over medium distances and especially when I am planning to have a few beers at the end of my journey. The advent of Eurostar has also made international train travel much easier, but that’s a topic for another time.

Travelling by train to large cities saves all the hassle of finding a place to park, or the stress of navigating ones way through busy and often congested city streets. In a nutshell, the whole experience is far less stressful than tearing up and down the motorway.

Ever since childhood I have always enjoyed train travel. I’m not quite sure what the attraction was in the beginning, but it was probably the ability to cover relatively long distances, in much shorter times than was possible by road.

Anyone who finds this concept strange, should be aware that when I was growing up,  back in the late 1950’s – early 1960’s, Britain’s motorway network was still in its infancy, and fast, dual-carriageway  roads were few and far between.

Car ownership was limited as well.
It might seem incredulous, but I had reached around 9 or 10 years old before my father acquired his first car, and even then it was a converted Austin A35 van. Prior to that the family was transported locally by motorbike and sidecar, with my mother riding pillion behind my father, and my sister and I squeezed into a rickety sidecar.

Longer journeys, such as trips up to London, to visit grandparents or other relatives, were invariably made by train, and it must have been from around this time that my love affair with rail travel first came about.

I was three years old when my parents moved the family from London, to Kent. Property prices were obviously much cheaper out in the sticks, and my parents had been able to purchase a three-bedroom, new-build in Willesborough; once a village in its own right, but by the late 1950’s,  it had become just a suburb of Ashford.

Ashford was, and still is, an important rail junction, with good connections to London, but when my family and I first arrived there, steam-hauled trains were still the order of the day. Although the pre-
nationalisation Southern Railway had embarked on an ambitious programme of electrification, World War II had put this on hold, and it was some time before work to electrify the more outlying lines could be completed.

As a result of  this, those early trips to London and back, would have been undertaken on a train hauled by a steam locomotive. Subsequent opportunities for train travel arose towards the end of my schooldays, when my friends and I would take the train to Canterbury, for the odd bit of shopping and the chance to hang out.

By this time the family had move to a small village, called Brook, situated to the north east of Ashford. We would cycle to nearby Wye, where we could leave our bikes at the station, before taking the train. A few years later, when I was in the Sixth form, a group of us would travel from Ashford to Folkstone by train, in order to watch various groups perform at the Leas Cliffe Hall. There we saw the likes of Fleetwood Mac (pre-Buckingham/ Nicks), Caravan, Groundhogs, the underrated, but very talented JSD Band and Uriah Heep, to name a few.

Fast forward to my student days, where a friend and I spent a month travelling around Europe by train, taking advantage of the Inter-Rail ticket. A few years ago I posted a couple of articles, on the blog, about my experiences on this marathon train journey which you might have thought would have put me off train travel for life, but it didn’t. 

Instead, a decade or so later, the previous Mrs Bailey and I undertook another long train journey, travelling initially to San Sebastian, on Spain’s northern Atlantic coast, before criss-crossing the Iberian peninsula to Alicante. This was pre-Eurostar, so the trip involved ferry crossings and overnight stays in Paris and Bordeaux. Both undertakings proved an excellent way to experience and appreciate the countries and the cultures we travelled through, and I would not have missed them for the world.

The other Friday’s meet up in Shifnal, with members of the Beer & Pubs Group Forum, allowed me to re-live part of a train journey I once made on a regular basis. This harps back to my days as a student at Salford University, where I got to know the train journey from London to Manchester like the back of my hand.

Making the journey by train was something of a luxury for a hard-up student, as it was considerably more expensive than the alternative coach option. Whilst the latter was less than half the price of the rail journey, it took twice as long, the seats were cramped and it was at times, something of a “white knuckle ride.”

What I mean here is that like cars, but unlike lorries, coaches are allowed in the outside “fast” lane of a motorway, and with tight schedules to keep up, it was not uncommon for drivers to tail-gate slightly slower vehicles in front of the coach, in a bid to force them to pull over into a slower lane.  You would be just dozing off, when all of a sudden there would be a squeal of brakes and you would be jolted forward, as the driver came up behind a vehicle who wouldn’t play ball. This, coupled with having been a passenger involved in two separate coach crashes, is why I am not a fan of this means of long distance travel.

To return to the story, arriving at Euston station, ready to board my train to Birmingham, was like stepping back in time, apart from the station itself, which looked rather tired compared to the bright, modern structure I remember from the mid-1970’s. I understand the station is due to be re-modelled in order to accommodate HS2, although given the current mess that UK politics is in at present, the future of the project remains uncertain.

The Virgin Pendelino train I boarded, was painted in a dull shade of grey, instead of its usual red livery. The company have lost their franchise for the West Coast Mainline, and are due to hand over to a new operator on 8th December. (See below).

When I was a regular traveller on this line, the rolling stock, rail lines, signalling and stations were all part of the unified, nationally-owned and nationally accountable British Rail. This was a far more sensible modus operandi than the fragmented system we have today, although of course the entire network suffered from chronic under-investment.

My journey to Birmingham the other Friday, involved turning off the West Coast Mainline, just after Rugby, whereas those trips back in the 1970’s continued on to Manchester by a route which avoids the Birmingham conurbation. The journey still brought back pleasant memories as the train sped steadily north, passing through familiar places and familiar landmarks.

Now that I’ve passed the magic age of 60, I’m entitled to a “Senior Railcard”, sometimes referred to as as “Old Git’s Railcard.” With a third off the price, even off discounted tickets – providing one travels outside of peak hours, in the south east, makes even long-distance rail travel more affordable and opens up whole areas of the country to the eager explorer. Even with moderate usage, the cost of the  £30 fee is soon re-couped,  and then the savings really start to mount.

A sad note to finish on because as mentioned above, tonight marks the end of the line for Virgin Trains, after more than 22 years of operating services on Britain’s West Coast Main Line.  The firm, which is owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Stagecoach, began serving what is sometimes known as the "backbone of Britain's railways" in 1997. The company was stripped of its franchise in a row with the Department for Transport (DfT) over pension liabilities. The companies are suing the DfT over its decision.

Virgin ran its first service in March  1997, with a pledge to update the 1960s rolling stock it inherited from British Rail.  In 2001 it delivered the Voyager, capable of 125mph, and a year later, it brought in Pendolino trains, equipped with tilting rolling stock, which enabled curves to be taken at higher speeds.

More than 500 million journeys have been made with Virgin during its tenure on Britain’s railways. Now that era is coming to an end, and shortly before midnight tonight (Saturday), the last ever Virgin Trains service will roll into Wolverhampton station. The trains will stay the same, the staff too will remain, but the iconic brand is set to disappear from our railways for good.

The new operator is Avanti West Coast, a joint partnership between the Italian state railway company TrenItalia and First Group. Avanti says passengers can expect simpler fares, new trains and more frequent services on the West Coast Main Line. (Sounds too good to be true?)



Dave said...

Few things rival the joy of jumping on a train. What a sense of freedom.

RedNev said...

Living in Merseyside, I have had free travel on all trains and buses within Merseyside since my 60th birthday, which is brilliant. Because the Merseyrail network extends beyond the Merseyside county boundaries at three points, we can also travel for nothing by train to Chester. This concession is great for organising pub crawls, as I do fairly regularly. Liverpool is a wonderful destination for pubs.

Also, the 60+ free travel pass allows you to go on the famous Mersey ferries for nothing too!

Paul Bailey said...

Dave, I wholeheartedly agree. That moment when the train starts to pull away from the station, is where the adventure begins. I really felt that sensation in the US last summer, as the Amtrak train I was riding, slowly edged out of Washington's Union station, on its overnight journey to Chicago.

It's not the same on a plane, as after the excitement of take-off, once the aircraft is up in, or even above the clouds, there's often little to see and no real perception of speed either.

Nev, I am extremely jealous. I shall have to wait another 16 months until I reach state retirement age - currently 66 for my age group, and whilst I will qualify for free bus travel, I will still need by Senior Rail Card. There's no free rail travel under Tory-controlled KCC. The buggers are even reducing further the subsidies paid in support of rural bus routes.

retiredmartin said...

I must have been unlucky, as I only have grim tales of my journeys on filthy, overcrowded, chaotic Virgin trains.

Paul Bailey said...

Perhaps you were unlucky, Martin. I admit I've not been a frequent traveller on Virgin, but my experiences have been largely positive.

They certainly compare favourably to journeys on the West Coast Mainline, back in British Rail days, when having to stand in the corridor, or in the guard's van, was often the norm.

Etu said...

Yes, I love 'em too Paul, but in some ways it's been spoilt by progress on the Continent.

The very high speed trains don't give you the same time to take in the views, as rattling along at sixty or seventy miles per hour does for a large part of the day. If I'm going to be flashing past bridge parapets and gantries at upwards of two hundred and fifty miles per hour then to be honest I'd rather be in the sky away from all that too.

But it means that employers don't have to pay for their envoys' overnight accommodation, nor pay them for time when they would previously otherwise have been free to explore wherever it might be that they were posted - that would include pubs and bars.

So it's progress and we mustn't knock it, hey ho.