A journey along the Western

Well, who knew? First Great Western has a Writer-on-the-Train. He’s James Attlee and his book chronicling his journeys from Paddington was published in mid-May, entitled Station to Station.

Having already written three books while travelling to and from a full-time job, he’s clearly seen plenty of the line between Bristol and London.

As he surveys the route, he starts from Paddington, noting that the station has “no monumental exterior, no triumphal approach”. At Paddington, passengers descend a ramp leading from Praed Street “arriving like a piece of luggage down a chute.” It is, in my view, a terrible start to any journey, made worse by the fug of cigarette smoke that a passenger must pierce before arriving on the concourse.

Attlee’s is no light travelogue as he delves under the skin of towns along the Great Western Railway’s route. He uncovers history, ancient and modern, noting for example Maidenhead’s connection to kindertransport trains of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia before WW2 and contrasting this Britain’s openness then with today’s Mediterranean refugees.

Reading comes with the obvious connection between its gaol and Oscar Wilde but there’s more than this to the book. I winced at the description of attempts to retrieve a coin that Brunel swallowed during a magic trick that went wrong. I had no idea that rock-and-roll legend Eddie Cochran met his end near Chippenham having forsaken his train tickets for a car to London instead.

As with Michael Williams’ recent book, Attlee’s makes a splendid companion to any rail journey. Better, however, a late night journey when there’s no view from the window.

This article was first published in RAIL 776 in June 2015.


Great War Railwaymen

The First World War was not the first in which railways played an important role but it was the first to use railways on such a scale.

For WW1 was a war like no other. The numbers involved are staggering in terms of men and materiel. They needed transport and here the railway stepped forward. It carried men at home and abroad. It carried ammunition. For the Western Front, this amounted to 5 million tons for British forces.

Much of this ammunition was fired by the Royal Artillery but was supplied via railways run by the Royal Engineers.

Over 12,500 railwaymen died in the war. Their story prompted CrossCountry Customer Service Director Jeremy Higgins to look more closely into their stories in an attempt to look beyond the names found on memorials across Britain’s rail network.

Jeremy also had an interest that extended beyond simply railways as a Royal Artillery officer in the Army Reserve with service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The result is his book, Great War Railwaymen, published last autumn. In it, he looks at the stories of railwaymen serving in the Army, Navy and Air Force, both those serving in railway roles and those serving in other posts.

Great War Railwaymen DSC_0292

It’s a fascinating tale both of the men and the railways of the Western Front and elsewhere. The railway occupations of those who died stretch from the well-known roles of clerk, porter and fireman to those less-known, such as rullyman (a cart driver). Absent from the list is driver, which I’ll admit surprised me. Clearly, drivers were needed to run trains in Britain but surely this also applies to firemen and signalmen?

Throughout the book are vignettes of letters, citations for awards (including seven Victoria Crosses) and panels showing when and where railwaymen died. Covered too are ambulance trains and railway guns, as well as narrow gauge operations behind the lines in France and the work of the Railway Operation Division which ran Army railways in France and elsewhere. There’s a place too for the work of the railway companies within Britain, not just in running their networks but also by turning their engineering works to important war production.

Great War Railwaymen is a fine book that does much to explain their role in World War One.


Radio 4’s Today – It’s a visual thing

I’ve stared into the eyes of the inquisitor-in-chief. For five minutes earlier this morning, all the separated me from John Humphrys were a couple of microphones and the desk from which BBC Radio 4 broadcasts its flagship Today.

He treated me gently. I’m not a government minister and I don’t qualify as a ‘guilty party’ in the great High Speed 2 debate. That’s probably just as well.

Nevertheless, anyone appearing on Today needs their wits about them. The programme is serious. It sets the day’s agenda. That said, there is room for humour. Presenter Justin Webb forgot what day of the week it was (only Monday, I’m afraid) as he wrapped up an interview about chess with Dominic Lawson.

Then it was High Speed 2. And High Speed 3, the mooted trans-Pennine route that promises much reduced journey times between the great cities of Northern England. Or at least between Manchester and Leeds. Sheffield is sometimes mentioned but I’ve heard little about that other great city, Bradford.

Humphrys suggested that high-speed rail was not needed with today’s modern telecommunications. Business could be done over the phone, he argued. Certainly it can. But we humans still need to see people. To eyeball them. It’s how we tell if someone’s honest, above board, telling the truth. Radio interviews can be done ‘down the line’ and they often are. Indeed that was how Humphrys had earlier quizzed HSR report author David Higgins.

However, the best interviews are done face-to-face. It exposes a wider range of emotions. You know if someone’s looking at their notes all the time. You can see if they look evasive. It works the other way too. An interviewee can see if their arguments are making sense – can see if they’re winning.

It might be radio but it’s all very visual.


French railways

A trip last week to Normandy provided a perfect opportunity to reflect on the differences between British and French railways.
The default view would have you believe that Britain’s railways are the poor relation and that everything is France is wonderful. In reality, French railways are far from perfect.
I travelled from London St Pancras to Lille by Eurostar, changing there to a TGV service for the run into Paris Nord. From there, it was one stop by RER to St Lazaire for an Intercity service to Caen.
I opted for first class in France and my TGV provided a large and comfortable seat. There were a few other passengers in the coach so it was neither empty nor crowded. A trolley service passed twice before its host settled down into an FC seat. On sale were the usual hot and cold drinks. In Britain on long-distance inter-city journeys you could reasonably expect complimentary hot drinks and maybe a packet of biscuits. In France, you must pay.
However, the journey was as quick as you’d expect a TGV to be and I was soon passing the huge amount of graffiti that marks the approach to France’s capital city. My RER transfer was simply enough (although the ticket barriers are not suited to passengers with luggage and not all lifts were working) and I reached St Lazaire around midday. It’s a big station with many platforms and serves suburban and inter-city destinations. There were plenty of people waiting but few trains. One service from Le Havre was running four hours late but mine to Caen left on time.
Running on classic lines, I was struck by the amount of railway the French have. My journey was punctuated by large yards of electrified sidings, rakes of stock and clusters of waiting locomotives of varying ages. Yet Caen’s service appeared to be two-hourly and I didn’t pass many other trains. There was certainly little freight but I passed several factories that still had connections. Biggest of them was a Peugeot works and this did have flat wagons loaded with vehicles in its exchange sidings. A nearby Renault factory even had its own signalbox (‘Poste’ in French).
Classic French first class provides less than TGV first class. There was no trolley and the seats appeared similar to second class, albeit with armrests.
My return from Caen coincided with a French holiday so the station’s seven or so platforms were particularly quiet. A couple of trains per hour were posted on the departures board, serving destinations such as Paris, Cherbourg and Lisieux. My journey to Paris was not troubled by any ticket checks and neither Caen nor St Lazaire have barriers.
I left Caen five minutes late and was slowed along the way by temporary speed restrictions. Arrival in Paris was on time almost exactly two hours later.
Paris Nord remains its cluttered self with armed soldiers, beggars, porters and electric service carts weaving their way through the hordes of waiting passengers. ‘Hall Londres’ provided me a good vantage point from which to view proceedings before I ventured into the crowded Eurostar departure lounge that’s been bolted onto the side of the trainshed.
It strikes me that France has an under-used railway network. In many cases, it appears unkempt. Broken lifts and stationary escalators reinforce this view.

Paris Nord station
Paris Nord station on November 1

In contrast, Britain has ploughed considerable sums of money into rolling stock and stations. It runs more frequent services and provides better on-board service than its near neighbours in France.


Metro warns users not to hold doors open

After an incident in which a woman was dragged along a platform at Jarrow with her arm stuck in the doors of a Metro train, the train operator has released a satirical cartoon warning of the dangers of holding doors open.
You can see it at


On weekend engineering

I should have known better. To travel on the East Coast Main Line on an autumn Saturday is to risk lengthened journeys, bus replacements or diversions.
And so it was on October 19 when I arrived at King’s Cross to travel to York and found no suitable trains on the destination board. If there was information advising passengers that the line was closed north of Peterborough then I didn’t see it.
Instead I checked National Rail’s website and it recommended taking a train to Peterborough for a bus to Newark and then a train onwards to York. I didn’t much fancy the bus option, not least because I was carrying a long but light cardboard box so I looked to see what trains might be running from St Pancras. This threw up a 1655 to Sheffield and then a connection to York.
The 153 miles to Sheffield would take 2hrs 10mins. This compares with a usual King’s Cross-York timing of 1hr 52mins for its 188 miles. It’s true that my Sheffield train stopped at Leicester, Derby and Chesterfield whereas the York time above is non-stop. But even taking that into account, the Midland Main Line remains a slow railway. There’s a programme of linespeed improvements and the bulk of the savings generated must surely go into running faster journeys.
Other similar programmes elsewhere have seen track owner Network Rail take the improvements to boost its performance figures. Certainly passengers want their trains to be punctual but they also want to arrive more quickly.
As an addendum, autumn ECML weekend work is continuing. Forewarned this time, I checked times for a Newcastle-King’s Cross journey next Sunday. This is what National Rail’s website suggested:
1528 Newcastle-1824 Stevenage
1830 Stevenage-1915 Harringay
Walk to Harringay Green Lanes
1935 Harringay Green Lanes-1941 Blackhorse Road
Then by Victoria Line to King’s Cross to arrive 2020.
I can’t help thinking that most passengers would, in this case, prefer a bus from Stevenage!


HS2 future chief: Place less emphasis on businessmen working on trains

High Speed 2’s forthcoming strategic business case is expected to place less emphasis on whether businessmen work while travelling.
Debates about HS2 over the past few years have been punctuated by arguments about the value attached to the ability to work on trains. Opponents of HS2 argue that faster trains are not worth building because it reduces the time a businessman can work.
However, HS2 Limited’s next chairman, Sir David Higgins, told MPs of the Transport Select Committee on October 14 that he expected that element of the strategic business case to be reduced, as he answered a question from Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton.
Higgins said that 100,000 passengers stand on rail journeys into London everyday (leaving unsaid the implication that they are unable to work on their trains) as he argued that building HS2 was about creating capacity.
Higgins also argued that HS2’s benefit-to-cost ration (BCR) model was wrong to “shut off growth in 2035” which is just three years after Phase 2 opens (West Midlands to Manchester and Leeds, with connections onwards to the West and East Coast Main Lines). The current Network Rail chief executive said that HS2’s 2% annual growth figures were very conservative.
In addition, he noted that the Jubilee Line Extension failed its BCR test but was still built and that Crossrail and Thameslink were delayed by 20 years because they failed the value-for-money test.
He side-stepped a question from Milton Keynes South MP Iain Stewart who asked whether abolishing first class would solve the capacity problem. Higgins said that was a matter for train operators and the Department for Transport but he added that the improvement would be small while HS2 made a “monumental increase in capacity”.
Under questions from Committee Chairman Louise Ellman, Higgins said he could see no evidence that HS2 would starve the existing rail network of funds. He said funding for Control Period 5 (2014-2019) was almost agreed and that work on CP6’s deal (2019-2024) was just starting. (While the Office of Rail Regulation is arguing that NR needs less money than it thinks, CP5 total spending is still expected to reach £38 billion of which enhancements form £12bn.)
The NR chief, who also headed the Olympic Delivery Authority, told the committee that the public had yet to be told of the benefits of HS2. For West Coast Main Line (WCML) services, HS2 would mean more stopping services for Coventry, Rugby, Milton Keynes, Stafford and Liverpool.
He said the focus had been on the project’s speed but, for him, it was about capacity. He said the southern end of the WCML was full as shown by ORR’s recent rejection of Virgin’s application to run trains to Shrewsbury and Blackpool.
Answering Karen Lumley, MP for Redditch, he said you could not keep patching up the southern end of the WCML. She asked why he had taken the chairman’s job and he answered that HS2 was too important to allow it to become a political football.
HS2 plans to open a high-speed railway between London (Euston) and the West Midlands (Birmingham Curzon Street), with stations at Old Oak Common (for Heathrow, Crossrail and Great Western connections) and Birmingham Interchange (for the airport and nearby motorways). This should open in 2026 at a cost of £31.4bn.
Phase 2 is expected to open in 2032/33 at a cost of £21.2bn.


Level crossings

It’s a measure of the complexities of level crossings that the Law Commission has just spent the last five years investigating the rules that lie behind such crossings before publishing a report containing over 100 recommendations.
In each of the last ten years, an average of 12 people have died in accidents at level crossings. They represent the biggest safety risk to railways today.
The Law Commission (and its Scottish equivalent, for this report is a joint one) outlines the problem and suggests a new act of parliament and secondary legislation to make laws surrounding level crossings clearer.
In its report, it says: “The legislation governing level crossings is complex and antiquated, much of it dating back to the nineteenth century when the main railways were constructed under individual local Acts, called special Acts. Today, the relevant legislative provisions are contained in a combination of public general Acts, private Acts, bye-laws, and subordinate legislation in the form of Orders and Regulations, many of which have been amended heavily over the years. Some of the Acts have been partially repealed and some of their provisions have become spent or obsolete. It is not always clear which legislative provisions apply and which take precedence.”
It notes how difficult it can be to close level crossings. This is Network Rail’s preferred course of action in order to improve rail safety.
Most level crossings are covered by their own legal orders that define what they are. This extends to specifying the power of the bulbs fitted to their warning lights. It means that it is illegal for NR to fit LEDs to level crossings in place of bulbs despite the LED being better for visibility. In practice, the Office of Rail Regulation has decided not to take action because it admits the changes improve safety.
Then there’s the problem of legislation pulling level crossing owners in different directions. Take a simple crossing over a footpath. Fitting gates is surely a good idea. Making these gates spring-loaded so that they cannot be left open appears sensible. Having the gates open away from the railway is also sensible because it allows someone caught on the crossing to leave quickly. But, consider a wheelchair user and ponder the difficulties of opening such a gate to allow the user to cross the tracks.
Or, how about the balance between road and rail users at busy crossings. There are some around the country that close for 45 minutes in every hour much to road users’ frustrations. In turn, this frustration could lead to motorists and other LC users taking safety risks.
In the early days of LCs, railway companies were required to erect gates and keep them closed across the road until there was traffic waiting to cross. The Railway Regulation Act 1842 allowed the companies to keep gates open for road traffic and close them only when trains needed to pass.
More recently barriers have replaced gates. But as automatic half-barriers have given way to full barriers, the commission concludes that there’s been a shift from convenience for road users to improved safety.
In extreme cases, it might be for a minister to decide for how long in each hour a particular level crossing may be closed to road traffic.
The Law Commission recommends that Britain adopt Level Crossing Plans which for each crossing would outline what road and railway authorities should do to keep the crossing safe.
It decided not to recommend that a series of new criminal offences be created to deal with users’ actions at level crossings. However, it has recommended that the laws surrounding existing offences are updated in modern language to allow them to be better understood. For example, it’s an offence under section 36 of the Malicious Damage Act 1861 to obstruct a train. The language in that act is likely to be rather different from modern legislation.


King’s Cross Square

Put out the flags! Let the bands play!

For tomorrow – 26 September 2013 – is an historic day! And not because Network Rail’s David Higgins has been appointed the next chairman of High Speed 2 Limited (although that’s pretty important).
No, for tomorrow is the day Network Rail unveils its new public square outside King’s Cross station. NR reckons it will be the first time for 161 years that people will have an unobstructed view of Lewis Cubitt’s London terminus.
NR has spent the last year tearing down the station’s old southern concourse in a job more difficult than it looked thanks to the concourse roof’s particular construction. That concourse was meant to be temporary when it was built in the 1970s to replace a plethora of huts than inhabited the space between the station and Euston Road. There was also a classic London Underground station building in the same area to lend some dignity to what otherwise was just a jumble.
However, all is now gone. There is now a square with stripes of granite running across it to reflect, according to its architects, the linear rhythm of the railway. Benches and trees will relieve the space, as will three vent shafts.
I suspect the architects would have preferred not to have London Underground vent shafts spoiling the otherwise clean lines of their square. However, they could not be moved and so the designers have made the best of the job in hand.
From west to east the vents are known as the Egg, the Rotunda and the Push-Pull, with the latter the least obvious. The Egg and Rotunda will feature a shop each to make them at least appear useful to passing pedestrians. They have also been clad in granite.
There is also an army of stumpy silver pillars lining the edge of the square. Apparently compulsory for unexplained security reasons they have the effect of enclosing this public space.
The square marks the final stage of the station’s massive rebuilding project. It’s certainly come a long way from its dingy past of just a few years ago. It’s now a welcoming and bright place; more refined than its brash neighbour St Pancras. And with York or Edinburgh on offer from its trains there’s every reason to become a passenger.
King's Cross Square large 24 September 2013
A view from the roof of King’s Cross station on 24 September 2013 as work continues to make the square beneath ready for its grand opening on 26 September.


Moving on from RAIL Magazine

Leaving any job can be difficult. When you’ve been working for a magazine such as RAIL for 16 years it is all the harder. Those 16 years have seen a vast range of highs and lows.
There’s been a boom in passenger numbers and a proliferation of freight companies shifting goods around the country. We’ve seen St Pancras station transformed and High Speed 1 opened. The West Coast Main Line has been modernised (well, most of it) and tilting trains now run in daily service.
But I can’t ignore the grim accidents that punctuated the early years. Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield were terrible to see, as were Heck and Ufton despite them not being the railway’s fault. Having seen the devastation at Heck up close the following day, this accident still brings a lump to my throat. I also saw the tyremarks on the M62 that showed how close the accident came to never happening.
There have been many highlights. The best of them saw me standing on top of the Forth Bridge. When I was studying mechanical engineering at Heriot Watt University I could see the bridge a few miles distant but I never imagined I would stand on its top. My visit coincided with some windy weather but the bridge just absorbs the wind’s energy. It was rock-solid – which is comforting when you’re so far up!
Other RAIL jobs have seen me under the Pennines in Standedge Tunnel. My trip took me through the disused bores but I could hear trains passing in the live tunnels and feel the air shifting as they passed through.
Then there’s the people I’ve met. Signallers, drivers, track staff, managers at all levels, and a few politicians and ministers. All influence today’s railway and it’s been a great privilege to be able to talk to them and quiz them on what they do and why they do it.
Now I’m switching to the world of a freelance railway writer. This blog forms part of that world. You’ll find news and views here – the news will be the railway’s and the views will be mine. There will be much to write about. Network Rail has a major electrification programme underway, Hitachi is about to build a new fleet of high-speed trains, money is being poured into daily improvements around Britain and there are tunnelling machines boring their way under London to form Crossrail.
High Speed 2 is coming. It will bring major change to Britain’s railway network in a way not seen since the network was built.
I should be busy