Posted in Railways on Saturday 28th August 2010 at 11:36pm

Bank Holiday weekends mean time to escape the West Country. The solid mass of traffic which pours into the area makes life tricky - but it's a necessity for the local economy I suppose. My strategy, as ever was to get away and to travel against the flow. When planning these last weekends in August a month or so back, I'd not even registered the holiday as such. I made all my usual checks - for football fixtures, for rugby matches and so on - and I was even vaguely aware of an important fixture in London. Still, you can't check everything, as I was to discover. My journey started on a bright, cold platform. There was a nip of autumn in the air, which instantly lifted my mood. It had been damp and dark all week, and the promise of a little sunshine was welcome. I noticed how dark it seemed, and with the days drawing in now the sun hadn't properly risen as I changed at Weston onto the first train to London. Familiar territory, especially in recent weeks. The journey up to the city in the amazing sunrise and cold, clear morning was just what I needed. A quiet, relaxing trip spent reading and windowgazing. Even managed not to think too much about work, or indeed anything - which lately is a rare miracle given a range of preoccupations. Even found something of a spring in my step at Paddington, which surprised me as I switched to the tube for the short trip to Kings Cross. The fact the Hammersmith & City Line was even operating this weekend seemed to add to the sense of a charmed existence - as for the last few weeks it's been a confusing half-service, always going where I don't want to be.

I had plenty of time at Kings Cross before the train to Bradford. The aim was to try out another of our Open Access Operators - this time Grand Central. After a really positive experience on Wrexham & Shropshire, and memories of really good trips with Hull Trains before they became part of a larger empire, I've always liked the idea of an outfit coming to the railway because they want to run trains - not an addendum to a bus company, or a vehicle for creaming off subsidy - just a good old fashioned train operator. Settled in for coffee at the very establishment I frequented last weekend, before heading into the station. The green shirts of Leeds rugby fans were everywhere, and despite being a good-natured bunch I was relieved to be heading in the opposite direction, just to avoid the crowds. The Class 180, now in Grand Central livery was ticking over on Platform 1 - which meant I could watch the general confusion over Platform 0 as I waited to board. I suppose the concept of zero as a number in itself is a bit alien to all but computer geeks among us. People would wander over, looking resolute but unconfident, then peer under the arches to see if the platform was really there, before heading for the train. Amused myself in this bit of urban ethnography before boarding my own train.

The Class 180s didn't really get a fair chance here in the West. First Great Western seemed to use them sporadically and on the wrong services, and the reliability record was appalling. There wasn't much excuse for this, as their sister units in the North West improved immeasurably with a bit of dedicated work. When they finally found their way onto the experimental Exeter semi-fast service - one that suited them - they were already on the way elsewhere. Now they've scattered all over the place, and it's good to see some of them doing useful work. Settled into the comfortable First Class saloon, and was immediately attended to by a polite, chatty gent who offered me a better seat if I wanted. Soon off, and speeding out of Gasworks Tunnel into the sunshine, the morning getting warmer as we headed north.

180114 waits  at Bradford Interchange to work the return service to Kings Cross
180114 waits at Bradford Interchange to work the return service to Kings Cross

One immediate difference in the experience on the Open Access services is the staff who, in the vast majority, actually want to be doing the job! They are keen to talk about the company - what they're trying to achieve, and why they're different. Passed a while listening to the chatter between staff and customers, but repeatedly picked up a message about how today was quiet because of "what was happening". Thought about looking up some news on the internet, but a quick leaf through the complimentary paper soon explained things...although the English Defence League had been denied a march through Bradford, they'd been allowed a static protest. The publicity had swelled the predicted crowds to thousands and thus a Union Against Fascism counter-protest was now happening too. Cursing my luck, and my lack of attention to the news in recent weeks, I wondered what to do. Grand Central were taking things seriously enough to taxi the staff away from the station and to their office. Reports were that several thousands were gathered and that things were already boiling over. This didn't look good at all.

On arrival at Bradford Interchange there were very few of us left on board. A Grand Central manager had joined the train at Wakefield and the staff were whisked away. I headed out of the station and onto the long ramp leading to the road. It was flanked by young, nervous-looking Police officers. They shuffled uncomfortably in their flak jackets, picking off the odd passenger to search. I managed to get chosen, and had a fairly heated discussion with a young PCSO who felt he ought to be deleting my pictures as they posed a "terrorism risk". A more experienced colleague told him "not to be so bloody stupid" and suggested I was "pretty weird but no way a terrorist". Finding a curious complement buried in that, I headed for coffee but found the shops mostly shut in the face of the possible trouble. Back to the station, noting that the rather oppressive heat and cloudy skies seemed to make the place feel even more tense. A huge collection of Police and private security officers barricaded the end of a road to a square where the UAF protest was in fine voice. Across town near the building site I'd surveyed from the Midland Hotel a couple of years back, the EDL were meting out their own brand of rather confused nationalism - which apparently had already included missiles being thrown. Time to go.

The train to Leeds couldn't come soon enough, and safely tucked into the station Starbucks and watching people passing along the fantastic art deco entrance hall, I reflected on my day. Somewhere in front of me, a resolute northern voice remarked on his drink to his wife: "Well it's not what I'd call coffee...". Not sure what he'd call it then, and didn't stay to find out. Struggled onto a busy Edinburgh-Plymouth service and after a brief altercation assumed my booked seat. After a couple of stations, I found myself alone, and managed to stretch out and relax with some music. I realised that, with my last odd travel experience already shaping into something of a short story, this too could find it's place. In the meantime, it had been a long and disjointed day out on the rails. I still can't think of a better way to spend them.

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I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.

I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.

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