Posted in Railways on Saturday 10th September 2011 at 10:09pm
Loosely continuing the theme, I was off to see some more controversial development today. Not the deletion and absence of Margate, or the sinister shift from private to public in Liverpool this time. No, today I was going to see changes which were real, were happening - but were costing a huge amount of money. This firstly entailed the early train to London. A lack of coffee saw me leaving the house feeling quite literally sick and tired. It had been a strange week - a mix of busy interesting times, and wastefully long commutes. I'd not slept a lot, and the routine of shopping and getting things done at home had been turned on it's head. So it was good to sink into my seat at Weston and just watch the world go by as the sun rose. No breakfast available on board, but that was a minor issue today. Once in the capital, I made a quick dash around the Circle Line to Kings Cross. Grabbed a much needed coffee and noted I could get to Cambridge earlier. This didn't help with my plans when I arrived, but it meant less of a rush - so I boarded the 09:15 Cambridge Express and had a very swift journey in surprisingly decent weather given the forecast. Arrived to find the station chaotically busy as ever. Lots of people milling around the single platform trying to understand the layout, many of them students who are new to the town - and a large number from overseas too. Noted the work to construct a new island platform was pretty advanced. It really is needed here.
But my objective here had little to do with trains. Leaving the station and picking my way along the stretch of roadworks, I found the temporary stop for the Guided Busway. My interest in this stems from it's use of the trackbed of the former St.Ives's branch line. The project opened in August - around £50 million overbudget and several years late due to complications with contracts and some flooding issues. There's still work to be done too - the area outside the railway station is to be a multi-stand 'station' for the various routes, but is currently a single cone-lined traffic-light controlled track between unfinished stops. A small crowd waited for the 10:40 "Go Whippet" service to St.Ives and beyond, which turned up on time and reversed clumsily to reach the stop. The new buses were purchased for the proposed 2009 opening by Whippet and Stagecoach who at one point switched their prospective message "I'll be on the busway soon, will you?" to a new slogan of "Will I be on the busway soon?" as the delays mounted. Both operators buses are a little more comfortable than usual urban vehicles, with Stagecoach offering leather seats - a train-like feel perhaps? The journey set off just like other bus journeys - wedged in city traffic. Buses in Cambridge suffer from sharing priority with cyclists who outnumber them hugely. Several areas are gated and restricted, which speeds things up a little, but time is also lost at the rather odd little bus station - a tiny, provisional affair which is congested and confusing. From here, it's back on to the busy Milton Road which is the main route out of the city towards the A14 trunk route. Progress was slow, but eventually at a rather inauspicious looking left turn bedecked with No Entry signs and dire warnings to motorists and cyclists, we turned onto what is currently the longest guided busway in the world.
In essence, the guideway is a run of concrete beams, held a fixed distance apart by concrete 'sleepers'. The guided buses have additional small horizontal wheels which run against these kerbs, meaning the driver doesn't need to steer. At the entrance to each guided section, for example after a junction with a non-guided road, metal guide rails taper into the concrete track to 'nudge' the bus into position. Between the tracks, nature is returning with a green swathe developing along the length. Of course the ubiquitous cycleway runs along most of the length of the line too, but this is also unfinished in places. My first impression was pretty positive - we certainly achieved speeds which I've never experienced on an urban bus before! This had its issues however, as a strange swaying began at speed. The alarming shudder as we entered sections was equally unsettling, but it did seem to do what it was supposed to. The drivers have a party piece - instead of the time-honoured single raised hand of recognition as they pass each other, they go for a more flamboyant 'jazz hands' gesture made possible by the guideway - much to the delight of passengers. The 'stations' along the route are rudimentary 'tram stop' affairs, but often sit close by the original railway buildings, with a fair number of platforms remaining. The railway past here is evident in the almost dead-straight formation for most of the journey, and the raised solum through the fens.
Near Oakington we noticed an odd vehicle approaching on the opposite track - a recovery truck which had been removing a stricken Stagecoach service. "Fifth time this week they've failed" the Whippet driver loudly exclaimed - partly disgusted, partly triumphant perhaps? Soon after we reached the Park and Ride site near St.Ives. Here the roadway broadens into a mixture of station and depot, with buses ready to form the next services ranked along the road. Noted how busy the stop for services back to Cambridge was, especially given the failure earlier. Here, our bus returned to the roads and very soon entered St.Ives tiny bus station. Thanked the really pleasant, professional driver who clearly loved the attention the Busway was bringing, and wandered around the market square for a while before heading back. The journey back was very, very busy. There are supposed to be around seven buses per hour on the route, but they're just not enough. There is no signalling as such, with the majority of the route operated on 'line of sight' so capacity isn't perhaps as restricted as it might be - but I just couldn't help thinking how three or four coach trains would be so much more effective than single buses.
Back at the station I pondered the busway. It works in some ways - it provides a quick, traffic-free run on the inter-urban section which would otherwise be at the mercy of busy roads in the peaks. However, at the very point where things get messy - in the city - it returns to the congested ancient streets of Cambridge. Capacity is an issue, and if the failure rate is as it seems, things are far from well-operated. As I set-off on a southbound service towards Stansted Airport, I noted the southern section of guideway which takes the route towards Addenbrooks Hospital - it will be interesting to see how the network expands, and what further former railway infrastructure is used on the old Varsity Line too. But ultimately, I remain unconvinced that light or heavy rail wouldn't have moved more people, more speedily. I hope it works out because, given none of the developer contributions have been paid, the public will be funding this for many years to come.
I seem to find myself at Stansted fairly often, despite never actually flying from here and generally finding it an oddly chaotic airport. Didn't hang around today though, as my sole purpose was to get a ride on one of Bombardier's new Class 379 units. A pair were ready to leave on the 14:00 Stansted Express to Liverpool Street, so I hopped on. They're tidy, spacious and comfortable inside with all the usual features expected of airport transit - good luggage space, wi-fi onboard etc. Didn't spot any catering, which is a step back as they had a pretty good trolley service previously - but perhaps Saturday afternoon isn't the best time to experience the service? Noted a majority of services we passed seem to be Class 379 operated now, with a couple on duty in Cambridge for Liverpool Street services too. So, a pleasant ride down to London managing a bit more snoozing on route too! Once at Liverpool Street, I decided not to hang around drinking coffee which had been my original plan. Instead, I headed directly back out to Stratford on a comparatively shabby Class 321. The hulk of Westfield, due to open next week, is nearly complete on the fringe of the still fairly disconnected Olympic Park. The station has seen some changes too, and seemed a little tidier than my last few visits - although the confusing platform numbering was clearly still troubling unfamiliar passengers. My goal though, was the freshly opened DLR extension on part of the abandoned North London Line. This line's duty has been slowly replaced by the DLR around here, with the branch to Woolwich Arsenal taking over the role of the abandoned stretch through Silvertown. This part uses the former low-level platforms which bisect the concourse at Stratford, tracing the route of the Jubilee line as far as Canning Town where a new set of DLR plaforms sit alongside the current double-deck station. A complex junction here connects the extension with the rest of the network, with services currently running either on to Beckton or Woolwich. Covered the junction and hopped off at Royal Victoria. Crossed the line by way of the huge footbridge, and noted I was now on ExCeL's property, via a poster asserting their right to close the area.
Back on the next DLR train to head north, and in the front seat coveted by children and big kids alike. I retraced my steps to Stratford, realising that there were three similarly named stations here now - including Stratford High Street and Stratford International. After passing through the mainline station once again, the line dives into the cut and cover tunnel which once linked it back to the North London Line, but which has changed a lot to meet DLR standards. The line takes a new route too, curving close to the lines it once connected with near the Olympic Aquatic Centre, then turning east and diving into a subterranean station at Stratford International. Ascending the lift found me in an isolated, empty spot. To my left were a bunch of service buildings for the shopping centre, to my right the huge glass and concrete International Station with just one tiny coffee stand in it's vast concourse. Silent now, but how much busier when Westfield finally opens? Noted the bus linking to the regional station was still running despite the DLR opening. Headed into the station, and bought a ticket back to London before descending to the rather chilly concrete box below. A short wait for a Class 395 which zipped me back to St.Pancras in about six minutes - still impressive.
Over coffee at one of my favourite spots in the busy St. Pancras International concourse, I contemplated the new developments I'd experienced today. Both the Busway and the DLR worked after their fashion - but both were the result of pre-recession investment in the main. Schemes like this, linked sadly but perhaps inevitably to projects like the Olympics or Westfield are probably the only way our network will develop for a long while. I still think the Busway would have been better had it been more like the DLR in nature, frequency and capacity. But the point is, I can get to St.Ives quickly and easily now - something I still can't do with my own workplace. Strange times indeed.
Posted in Railways on Saturday 3rd September 2011 at 10:00pm
It's six weeks now since I did an organised railtour, and I've fallen into a pattern of revisiting places rather like I did a couple of years back. This way, I still get my beloved rail journeys but end up somewhere I visited some time ago, with the intention of looking at the place through fresh eyes. Over the last few weeks I've gravitated to the southern end of the West Coast Main Line - not least because the range of cheap London Midland tickets has made some interesting journeys possible. Today again I used these to build a trip over familiar territory - an early start as ever, though delayed a little by signalling problems close to home. Still time for my customary refreshment at Bristol before boarding the 07:00 to Birmingham. Indifferent weather, but good just to be out and about. A change here for a Nuneaton train which was a little busier, and something of a wait once I arrived. Busied myself with a trip to the nearby supermarket which I'd discovered a couple of years back, getting back to the platform in time to see celebrity Pendolino 390054 pass by, a little before a tour using 50044 on the WB64 Virgin rake. Didn't mind the minor delay this caused to proceedings at all, and we were soon off and heading up the Trent Valley to Stafford. A quick switch here, as I've become used to making, and onto a Liverpool-bound unit for the rest of the trip.
Arriving at Liverpool remains a familiar experience, though the station is a much open and lighter proposition since the area immediately outside the trainshed was cleared. The concourse still feels oddly squashed at it's northern end by the 1980s retail and gateline block, but the exit to the south is impressive. Got my legs working with a wander down the steps and into the city - familiar enough territory, and I've got this far on recent trips. Noted though how Liverpool is built of layers of redevelopment - the recent work near the station gives way to the 1970s entrance to the City Centre - brick underpasses and a confusing hotel/shopping centre complex. Then, in the city itself, I began to encounter Liverpool ONE. I'm not sure what, or indeed where this is - its a sort of pervasive mall which has commandeered the street-pattern for it's own ends. I can't find a map of it either, and that causes me unease. Suffice to say, there is an area of what appears to be normal, if tidy and well-maintained, city streets into which the Big Issue sellers won't stray.
I decided to walk towards the docks - where I hadn't been for maybe ten years. Here another layer of development becomes apparent. Between the city and the dockside there had been an uneasy strip of former warehouses. Some had just begun to enter new use when I was last here - as loft apartments and clubs - but much remained derelict despite being on the route to that much championed resort at Albert Dock. Now though, one side of the street is a shining curve of modern hotels and boutiques. The other side retains it's old buildings, but they are all in use now. I pass a giant Tesco store, discretely fitted into the streetscape and realise something rather frightening - the local transformation has even subdued the massive retail giant which is Tesco, the much-defended brand being forced to share a sign here - "Tesco Liverpool ONE". The curve of the street delivers me to the new Bus Station, already moving from it's position near the railway when I visited years back. Beginning to feel like I was in some comic-horror film, I noted that here too things had changed - even at the "Liverpool ONE Bus Station"!
It becomes apparent here from an uneasily sourced map, that I've walked the edge of the development. Hanover Street, formerly a mildly menace-laced plunge into dereliction is now the edge of Liverpool ONE. Here I decided to brave the six-lane highway which Wapping has become to get to the original development zone - Albert Dock. Little has changed here since it's late 1980s transformation into a cultural hub. The Tate still busy with punters, though looking a little tired in it's design now. No giant weather map floating in the dock since "Richard and Judy" defected to evening TV and minor scandalmongering. What is interesting is how the area to the north of the Dock is changing. Stumbling over the mock-antique cobbles - currently being replaced it seems with exact replicas of replicas - and the restored bridges takes me into the Canning Wharfs area. What is most immediately apparent is how a black shard of a building has obliterated the skyline. The Liver Building cowers behind this obsidian monster - which in other circumstances could be rather dramatic. Here though, it just subtracts from the city. I edge around it, noting signs which describe how "government cuts" have called a halt to development of the docks. Making the point, a semi-permanent ring of metal fencing makes you walk the long route around. The signs, amusingly, built with funding from the Dept. for Culture Media and Sport. Enough in the bank for the testy politicians of Liverpool to declare their independence as per tradition then, with some sort of Recession-based Theme Park. Rounding the black glass office with camera out, a security guard takes an interest. He's bored, alone and is ignoring all the Japanese tourists with cameras. I don't want a repeat of last week, but he settles for walking a few paces behind me, pretending to peer into the empty offices. He need not really pace the circuit, you can see straight through the building anyway.
Back into the city, and the heart of Liverpool ONE. It's teeming with shoppers, it's spaces managed carefully to exclude the undesirable. On the fringe, a small protest about the impending release of Jon Venables was taking place. A single angry woman barking into a megaphone, while her friends offer a petition to bystanders. None of this inside the unofficial cordon though, and my walk back to the station unravels the layers of development, while dodging retail-blinded shoppers who seem to come at me without seeing me - an achievement in itself perhaps.
The journey home is sleepy and thoughtful. I'm not sure what to make of Liverpool now. It had always felt a hopeful, developing place - but now the work is done, it has lost something of it's character perhaps. It has also lost the 'Beatles as a Brand' mentality to some extent too, which is probably a good thing. Fewer businesses seem to stake their unsteady survival on the legend of the Fab Four. I wonder, if I'll encounter similar changes elsewhere as I re-explore other cities? It's an interesting if rather alarming journey.
Posted in Railways on Saturday 27th August 2011 at 10:47pm
My attitude to Kent has changed a lot of the years. Originally put off by the dull dash through the flat, featureless centre of the county, it took the serious attempt to cover all of the UK lines, along with an All Line Rover years back to start to dispel the image. Since then, when I've had weeks to spare for my own self-organised travels, I've made a number of jaunts out into Kent. Not least because it means part of a day in London if I want to come back early too. This time though, I decided I wanted to visit Margate. Not sure why or what might have spurred this, but I realised that on my many trips this way I'd never stopped off here. Add to that the fascination I have with seaside places, and the dim knowledge of artistic links with Tracey Emin and the like, and I suppose I got rather curious. I'd mentioned it to a number of people at work and they'd all remembered Dreamland. A turn-of-the-last century attempt to import the theme park concept and add a little twist of Britishness. I was intrigued by this, and set-off with an explorer's enthusiasm this morning.
The trip went smoothly enough...customary switch at Weston, breakfast and a pleasantly quiet run up to London. A quick spin on the Circle Line to St.Pancras, and time to get a coffee and head for the platform where Javelin No.8 was waiting to whisky us along HS1 and into Kent. Soon, off and speeding under London as a noisy family settled into the seats beside me. Put it out of my mind and enjoyed the sense of speed as we dashed through North Kent and down to Ashford. Here things slowed to what felt like a crawl as we progressed on old fashioned third-rail tracks via Canterbury West and onto the coast at Ramsgate. The weather had varied dramatically as I sped east - dark rolling clouds, some short showers, but now surprisingly bright sunshine. I finally stepped out into Margate for the first time, having no real idea what to expect. As it happened things were going to get rather eventful...
After taking a look at the impressive station building, I walked down the slope near a strangely inviting Premier Inn onto the prom. Nearby, all of the shops in a strange concrete arcade were shuttered and things seemed closed. Towering from the top of the arcade was a huge, oddly corrugated looking towerblock. It still seemed to be lived in, just about. Turning the corner, the remains of a shopping arcade tunnelled deeper into the concrete. Blocked off at the end by a steel pallisade fence which was sprouting vegetation, only a couple of shops seemed active - a fairly run-down looking cafe and a joke shop which had been provisionally amended to be a 'Bong Shop'. I shuffled on, passing some blue hoardings of the kind beloved by stalled developers. Looking at the aspirational images pasted onto them I realised that this was, in fact, dreamland. Almost entirely gone now, the posters promised a new Dreamland, saved from the jaws of residential development with Sea Change and Heritage Lottery Fund money, a new 'heritage' theme park would rise here. Some day.
Passing the front of Wetherspoons, the first open business I'd seen, I noted the shuddering early drinkers fumbling with tobacco and watching traffic on the prom. A gentle rise brought me to the High Street, a narrow pedestrianised affair, jammed with lower rent national chains, such as Wimpy - which I only seem to find in Kent these days. At the top, opposite a nameless junkshop which featured pictures of leading policemen and odd portraits instead of a name, I saw a view down a steep hill into a massive vacant area littered with twisted metal and broken stone. A little mental geography made me realise that this was the remains of Dreamland. Stumbled down the hilly street to the pallisade fence which seems to be everywhere here, and pressed my camera through the bars.
I felt a presence nearby as I took some shots of the place, zooming in on an abandoned, peeling arcade and a collapsing rollercoaster. I thought nothing of it - people pointing cameras are always fair game for passing voyeurs - more to see what they're looking at than as subjects themselves. However, a tap on the shoulder and the presence of an unmarked white van confirmed my worst fears - security. After a brief altercation during which my camera was manhandled, and the Police were briefly involved - much to their disdain - the security guard, a square, pale-faced and haunted looking character, finally asked me in his esturine accent "So, why was you takin' pictures 'ere then?". I thought a bit about what might be least annoying or incriminating and replied "Well, it's just interesting I suppose". He looked at me first with disbelief and then with unfettered disgust. He spat the words "Fuckin' pervert" as he got back in his van and left. The bored Policeman watched him go silently, and to quell the awkwardness I said "Well, I might take some pictures then!". "Better not push it" he replied, and disappeared off into what was sure to be a busy Bank Holiday weekend.
The rest of my visit was less eventful - descending the High Street I entered a strange zone of clubs, alternative clothing and semi-legal stimulant shops. The street was directly above and behind the promenade here, and some of the stores had ground floor entrances there too, including a vast Primark branch. At the end of the High Street though was the Old Town. A mixed up neighbourhood of old squares, impressively unchanged buildings and painfully cultural boutique businesses. A pleasant area, flanked by the monstrosity of Morrisons which must have destroyed more of this landscape when it was parachuted into town, likely in the 1980s. I decided to head back to the railway station, via the preparations for a vast performance artwork tonight - Blink Margate which promised to re-imagine the seafront. After taking a few shots around the concrete monstrosity of Arlington House where I came in, I pondered Margate from the "Standing Stones" sculpture between station and sea, as bits of conversations drifted by "she said I was on drugs...well, that's Margate". I read too, that Tesco had purchased the rear of Arlington House, beyond the pallisade fence the illogical and forbidding carpark, a concrete maze, was being transformed. Locals bickered about the store - good for town, bad for locals. Hard to say. I saw plenty of my home town's troubles here too.
Back on the train, I took the slower, traditional route back to London Victoria. A sleepy, warm trip - despite a flash of very heavy, tropical rain on the coast. Black, tumbling clouds rolled over the cliffs and framed Reculver Abbey, subject of recent reading. I took snaps of the towers through the dirty windows. I wished I'd had the energy and drive to get out to them on a bus or something, but the urban exploration had left me curiously tired and rather forlorn. Work pressure hemmed me in, I was worrying again. Maybe a good sign after an impassive and uncaring summer? The ruined abbey was oddly comforting. I decided on arrival to take a bus across central London, to pop into Euston again. As I left, another bus back to Paddington, another sudden tropical storm lashed down, despite clear blue skies south of the river. It had been a very strange day, but an eventful and interesting one. I read and pondered my way home in a curious and thoughtful frame of mind...
Posted in Railways on Saturday 20th August 2011 at 10:51pm
I'm beginning to see how this strange hobby of mine goes in cycles. Last week saw me needing to turn lost days and cancelled trips into something of a coherent journey. It didn't work hugely well, and there were times when the need to be somewhere else without purpose made me pretty miserable. But this week, I'm back to the idea of being somewhere else without purpose for fun. When travelling, and the experiences and thoughts it throws up are the backdrop to pretty much everything I do, perhaps I should just embrace these periods of strangely dull eventlessness, and enjoy the strange opportunities they engender?
Take this week for an example. A trip without a destination as such - setting off early, a pleasant wait at Temple Meads for a train to Salisbury. The route less travelled onto the Southern as it's usually so busy, but pleasantly bearable at 07:23 on a Summer Saturday. A quick switch at Salisbury onto a London-bound unit, and again the route less travelled via Andover to Waterloo. I doze, listen and read - it's bright and sunny out, and it's nice just to be going in a direction I don't often travel nowadays. Once, when it was the cheapest way to get to London I used it a lot, and accepted the shorter day I'd get in the capital. Even today, oddly, the first class fare was cheaper than the standard. Zooming through Woking and the suburbs reminded me of a railtour to come, and got me pondering where to head on arrival.
On getting to Waterloo I made something of an error and headed for the bus far too early. I should have hung around the busy station a little longer. Instead, hoped onto a Euston bound service - but thought better of it at Tavistock Square and alighted to get coffee in the same spot I'd visited a week or two back. Quiet, and frequented by Spanish tourists who tumbled out of the cheap and cheerful hotels around the area, this was an odd, high-windowed spot where people watching was confined to indoors. Wrote and thought a bit, getting myself a little down in the process. Was this strange pointless dash what I was now confined to? Would the next few weeks be just as oddly lacking in direction? Decided to stroll into the area I've grown to love around Judd Street and up to the Euston Road. Could happily have gone further, but decided that it was time to visit the station. Shopped a bit, finding a new convenience store into the bargain, then headed down to the platform to see the London Midland service to Crewe arriving.
These slow services on the West Coast have intrigued me for years. In Silverlink days they were split into two separate services at Northampton, with few travelling through to Birmingham directly. Now there is a more interesting pattern, with units being uncoupled and heading for Birmingham, while the rest of the train heads along the Trent Valley, calling at smaller stops before taking in Stafford, Stoke and the loop back to Crewe via Alsager. The new, fairly nippy Class 350s are comfortable enough - but begin to get a little hard on the back after a couple of hours. Nevertheless, had a lazy run along the coast, seeing scenery I miss from a Pendolino porthole. Arrived at Stafford to find it quiet, but heavily Policed - later realising this was due to the Weston Park arm of the double-venued V Festival. Did something I've never done before, but which these less focused trips facilitate, and wandered into Stafford. Greeted by a beautifully well-kept public park surrounding the canal with an ornate bridge, then a walk between impressive civic buildings, a church and overhanging black-and-white town houses into the pedestrian area. Little there to distinguish it from other places, but a pleasantly busy town nonetheless. Wandered a little and thought about stopping for coffee, but I only had an hour - so the station seemed a better bet. Arrived to find the coffee machine broken, so ended up nursing a hot, weak cup of tea and listening in to the Police chatting about the festival.
The train home arrived on time and surprisingly quiet. Found my seat and settled in for the journey home, early than usual. The clouds closed in a little which created some spectacular sunset scenes as we headed into the golden glow over the West Country. On reflection, it had been an interesting and relaxing day. Isn't that, after all, what it's all about?
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.