18th April 2009 Blog
Posts from my rail tour diary as Transport Minister
Nothing beats intensive first hand experience when you are responsible for a major public service. So tonight, while parliament is in recess, I’m off on a five day national rail tour, starting on the midnight sleeper from Paddington to Truro, then zigzagging from Cornwall across a large part of Britain to reach Inverness by Friday, and returning to London on Saturday via a few hours at the National Railway Museum at York, where the new Tornado steam engine may be making an appearance.
The Times has encouraged me to write a warts-and-all blog on my travels, so here – rather nervously, being new to the art – goes.
As a train user for much of my travel out of central London, I already know pretty well the main inter-city routes and south-east commuter services. My plan this week is to get to some of the lines and services I have rarely or never used before, including provincial services and east-west lines, which are increasingly important to the national transport system for both passengers and freight. I’ll be experiencing about as wide a range of routes, trains, stations, waiting rooms and on-board sandwiches as possible in five days – a total immersion in rail passenger-hood.
At most of the stops along the way – and on many of the journeys en route – I will be joined by local rail staff, MPs, journalists and rail user groups, who will not be slow to tell me what’s good and bad about their services. I’ll also doubtless hear at first hand what fellow passengers have to say about their train service.
As for the itinerary, it begins tomorrow in Truro – after falling out of the sleeper at 7am – with breakfast with Matthew Taylor MP, a friend from university before he became the youngest MP for about a decade. Then it’s up and down the Newquay branch line from Par with Dan Rogerson MP and the local rail user group. From Par I take the Cornish main line to Exeter, for a station tour and meeting with Devon passenger groups, then on to Yeovil, where David Laws MP is giving me a lift from Yeovil Junction on the London line to Yeovil Pen Mill on the cross-country line from Bristol so I can proceed south to Dorchester and Wareham. Jim Knight MP (my fellow schools minister in my last department, who recorded one of Labour’s most remarkable victories by winning his Dorset seat in both 2001 and 2005) meets me at Wareham for an hour’s trip on the preserved Swanage Railway (midway between Weymouth and Bournemouth) – which is seeking a mainline rail connection. The evening takes me east to Southampton and Brighton, arriving just after 11pm if all goes according to plan, the only welcoming party being (I hope) a concierge at the hotel next to the station.
Wednesday’s itinerary is Brighton (starting at 5.30am) to Norwich, arriving at a more civilised 5.30pm for a station tour and meeting with local rail users before dinner with Charles Clarke MP, a friend and mentor from his days as the indomitable Education Secretary who enacted the student fee reforms of 2003/04 while I was Tony Blair’s policy director in No 10. I get to Norwich by a roundabout route along the Sussex and Kent coasts, joined at various stages by fellow transport minister Paul Clark (MP for Gillingham), Norman Baker (MP for Lewes and the indefatigable Lib Dem transport spokesman) and Roger Gale (MP for North Thanet), so I can visit some of the towns which will later this year benefit from the new high-speed Javelin services to St Pancras. A hop across the Thames on the Tilbury ferry from Gravesend takes me on the line to Shenfield (terminus for the east-west Crossrail line soon under construction) and Ipswich (for tea with Chris Mole MP), proceeding to Norwich via the provincial lines to Beccles and Lowestoft.
Thursday is another crack of dawn train, the 5.52 am Norwich to Liverpool – an extraordinarily long cross-country service – which I leave at Peterborough, connecting through to Birmingham for a tour of New Street, one of the post-Beeching railway planning disasters of the 1960s soon thankfully to be replaced by a £500m new station with twice the passenger capacity and facilities, more fitting for a great city. At Birmingham I also meet Pete Waterman, the nation’s trainspotter in chief, who joins me for the ride west to Shrewsbury and then north to Chester (branching briefly into Wales). From Chester it is on to the railway junction of Crewe to catch a train north-east to Manchester Airport and a tour of the recently expanded station there which is successfully transferring airport traffic from car to train. After a Trans-Pennine Express trip into Yorkshire – a greatly improved service but still one of the slower inter-city routes – it is back to Manchester for a late west coast main line train to Carlisle and a possible nightcap with Eric Martlew MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary rail group and MP for the city.
On Friday morning I leave Carlisle on the scenic west coast to east coast line to Hexham and Newcastle for a Tyne-and-Wear tour and a circular trip back to Newcastle via Middlesbrough, Stockton and Darlington, the birthplace of the railways. Then at 3pm it is onto ‘The Highland Chieftain’ – one of the few named trains to have survived across the decades – for the five hour journey through Edinburgh, Stirling and Perth to Inverness, the single longest daytime journey of the trip. Danny Alexander MP and his local rail user groups meet me at the station and then I try to get an early night before boarding the ridiculously early 4.57 am train on Saturday from Inverness to Edinburgh via Aberdeen, connecting on to an east coast main line train to reach York at 1pm – where the welcoming party will be my family, all set for a tour of the National Railway Museum and the Minster – and hopefully tea at Bettys – before we embark on the final express train back to Kings Cross, in hot pursuit of the Tornado which will have set off a few hours before.
In all, that’s about 2,000 miles on some 40 trains spread over 70 hours. Or so much for the plans. What happens in practice will be the stuff of the blog over the next few days.
As for cost, I am expecting to do the whole trip, standard class, for £375 – plus a sleeper supplement for the first night – using a 7-day “all line rail rover”. This is a ticket no-one I meet has ever heard of, perhaps because it is so poorly advertised (alongside the 14 day rover at £565). It prompts the thought that we should be marketing these tickets more widely, not least to young people (who can buy the 7 day ticket for just £245) so that they can get to know their own country in the same way that they and their predecessors (me included) got to know Europe by inter-railing for a summer holiday. But perhaps after five days on the road – sorry, rail – that won’t seem such a good idea.
The Night Rivierra sleeper service to Cornwall leaves from Platform 1 at Paddington. This is the platform, dominated by its huge Victorian clock, from which my train to boarding school used to leave, so seven years worth of fond memories of flooded back as I arrived for another uncertain voyage.
The train harks back to the past in many other ways. It is locomotive hauled – the ‘Totnes Castle’ doing the honours last night – and has wonderful old style sleeper compartments, each with a courteous attendant who brought tea and breakfast as the train pulled into Bodmin Parkway at 6.30am. My attendant, Tasmyn, was a Cornish lady who has been doing the job for six years. She loves the train and it shows. There are 3 sleeper coaches, each with 8 single and 4 double berths, and it was about two-thirds full.
The new touch is an on-board entertainment system. As the train pulled out of a deserted Paddington at 11.45pm I flicked onto the ‘drama’ channel to find a David Suchet “Poirot’ special. No, surely not Murder on the Orient Express! In fact it was ‘Mrs McGinty’s Dead’, with Poirot proving the innocence of a convicted killer within days of the gallows, via lots of trips to the village of the murder on restored steam trains which I hope made some money for the heritage side of the rail industry. I fell asleep long before the little grey cells identified the real murderer, and didn’t wake up until the station announcer at Exeter, at 4.30am, made it hard to do otherwise.
Off the train a little early at 7.05 for breakfast in a Truro coffee shop with Matthew Taylor MP. His main transport concern is the A30, whose dualling is still incomplete. An hour later back on the train to the junction station of Par, where Dan Rogerson MP was on the platform with the leaders of the ‘Focal’ group, which is promoting improvements to the branch line to Newquay on which I travel next after visiting the wonderful old Par signal box, with its levers, bells and semaphore signals, straight out of Poirot a few hours – or 80 years – previously.
The line to Newquay is not quite the classic case of the branch line which fell on hard times but is now reviving. It kept its holiday express trains to London post-Beeching and also a good deal of china clay freight traffic. But it is certainly reviving now, with 7 weekday local trains winding slowly along the 21 mile line in addition to the Saturday long-distance trains. The local trains are mostly single carriage trains like the one I took. Ours was pretty full there and back, including a party of young surfers out for a day from Saltash who quickly took up all the luggage racks with their surf boards. Apparently on Good Friday the train was so full with surfers that a local coach had to be found to take half of them. With Newquay a growing attraction, the future for the line appears bright, although it is now running at full capacity.
A two minute connection at Par, then onto a Penzance to London express. Next stop Exeter to meet representatives from Devon rail user groups before taking trains to Yeovil, Weymouth, Southampton and finally reaching Brighton at 11.20 tonight. Then to a hotel for the first long – well, six hour stationary period in 24 hours.
So far, every train on time. The inter-city 125 I’m on has every seat taken as we reach Totnes – no sign of the Totnes Castle – and a few people standing in the vestibule, so when it leaves Exeter it will doubtless be busy.
Just arriving at Hastings at 6.30am in the company of a dozen other passengers, having set off from Brighton at 5.30am with only two others before Norman Baker MP joined at Lewes.
Norman, who is passionate about the railways, points out the disused platform at Lewes which used to serve the rural line which is now the preserved Bluebell Railway from Sheffield Park. I remember visiting the Bluebell at the age of 9, and the thrill of going on a steam train for the first time. The memory came back yesterday afrernoon when I visited the Swanage Railway in Dorset with local MP and schools minister Jim Knight. The large, enthusiastic and highly professional team at the Swanage operate steam and old diesel trains along a dozen miles of track from Norden, with a full daily timetable. They want to link up to the London-Weymouth main line at Wareham. There is strong local support, and since the track is all there and the business case is promising, the proposal is highly credible.
Britain’s preserved steam railways are a remarkable part of the railway system and the national tourist industry. As a proponent of new high-speed rail lines, following the successful example of France and Japan, I am keen to build a new technological future for the railways, breaking with the baleful historic British railway tradition of patch-and-mend. The challenge is to celebrate the best of the past – as do our preserved railways – while boldly seizing the latest technology to create anew for the future.
Norman left at Eastbourne, for a ceremony with war veterans, as I proceed to what is now called Ashford International – a junction with High Speed One from St Pancras to the channel tunnel which is the best of the modern on Britain’s railways and a model for the future.
Writing now at Ashford, after a long chat with Amir, the guard on the train from Eastbourne, who tells me that passenger numbers on his line have rocketed since the old Ashford to Hastings service was extended through to Brighton two years ago. At peak hours the two coach trains are extended to four coaches, but it is still sometimes standing room only. A success story for Southern, which pioneered the service, and a good example of the struggle to provide enough trains and carriages on lines where passenger numbers are growing fast.
Less positive was my experience of Southampton station yesterday evening. At only 8pm there was nowhere on the station selling refreshments – not even a cup of tea was to be had for good money – and but for the forethought of Jocelyn Pearson, the local Passenger Focus director who came to brief me on her work, who had brought a bottle of orange juice, I would have got onto the two hour train to Brighton unable to get anything to eat or drink. This was in marked contrast to Brighton, where the station’s M & S was still open at 11.30pm, so I could buy dinner on arrival.
Surely the major stations should be selling food and drink until late evening, in the same way that motorway service stations are required to do? Another point for action on my return – starting by finding out who is responsible for commissioning catering at major stations, Network Rail or the train operating companies. If I don’t know, the travelling public doubtless don’t know who to take this up with either.
It surprises me that it isn’t in someone’s commercial interest to be providing refreshments in a major station like Southampton until late in the evening, in the same way that motorway stations do; the ticket collector told me that he gets lots of evening passengers asking where they can get something to eat and drink. I will be raising this issue with SWT and Network Rail next time I see them.
Everywhere I travel, railway staff, senior and junior, have practical suggestions for expanding and improving the railway system. They no longer see themselves working for a declining industry. They have a real pride in their job and managers are trying to work out how to reconcile explosive growth in rail demand with stations which are now often too constrained and trains which could do with more carriages and greater frequency to meet passenger needs.
At Exeter on Tuesday, the station manager told me the station car park is now routinely full by mid-morning, and he would have no difficulty filling another 100 spaces if an old nearby piece of rail land could be converted. At Gilligham I was told of plans to renovate the station entirely, and Ipswich of plans to transform accessibility with new lifts, at Norwich of a new bus interchange in the station forecourt which could do with being larger and able to offer much faster services into and through the city centre.
My conductor on the train on which I’m writing – the 05.52 Norwich to Liverpool (a mega cross country service via Peterborough Nottingham and Manchester) – tells me that the service is so popular that the two car diesel units routinely struggle to take all the passengers and luggage. We left Norwich with only five passengers but already by Ely at 06.50 the train is filling up fast.
Two particular themes are the desire to run more services through to London, which lost them decades ago, and the need to improve east-west routes which have always been poor, in relation to the radial routes from London. Or in the case of South -West England and Kent, north-south services.
My south-north journey from Gillingham to Ipswich yesterday via five trains and a virtually deserted Tilbury ferry which deposits passengers in the middle of a freight terminal in Tilbury with a 15 minute walk to Tilbury station is not one I would recommend widely.
But in Norwich yesterday evening where I met Charles Clarke MP with local council and business leaders, the discussion focussed as much on the west-east Norwich to Peterborough routes as on their desire for a standard one-and-a-half hour journey time from London (it is currently 1h 52m for the 120 miles, the same as London to York, which is another 60 miles further from London and seen by Norwich leaders as a key business location competitor).
At Lowestoft, which now has a thriving direct service to London seven times a day as well as local services to Norwich and Ipswich, the station manager described how the double tracking of Beccles station on the Ipswich line would make it possible to run a more regular service to London.
There were cameras in tow for my visit from a regional ITV news station. As we finished speaking a lady accosted me. I expected an earful about the failings of the train service. ‘Sorry, have you got some horror stories about the trains to tell me?’ I enquired, the cameras rolling. ‘Oh no, the trains are great; we’ve come in from Beccles with the kids for the sea and the burgers. But I’ve just started this new toothgel business and I was wondering if you could give it a plug.’ Well, it’s called Forever Living Products…
As for all the good ideas that have been put forward to me, I intend to see what can be done about them when I get back to London.
Birmingham New Street, where I spent two hours yesterday en route from Norwich to Chester, is without doubt the lowest point of the tour so far. Whilst the staff there were incredibly helpful and accommodating, almost everything about the station is ugly, unfriendly, dark and forbidding. The platforms are narrow, dark and underground. The concourse has no natural light, no attractions, no large circulation area, and is far too small for the heaving throng whose only desire is to get in and out of the station as fast as possible. The visitor has no sense whatsoever of the station as the gateway to England’s second city, opening out to a brilliantly restored and redeveloped city centre uniting the old and the new, from Joseph Chamberlain’s Council House and the canals, to the modern gems of the Symphony Hall and the rebuilt Matthew Boulton College.
New Street station is a brutalistic legacy of the 1960s, the most depressing and destructive decade of Britain’s railway history, just like Euston station at the other end of the west coast main line to London.
So it was a pleasure to listen to New Street’s manager explain how the £600m rebuilding of New Street (which is about to start) will totally transform the station above platform level. The new ‘gateway’ station will have twice the capacity of the existing station and plenty of natural light, opening up of the concourse to the city centre. The only pity is that tight space constraints limit the improvements that can be made at platform level.
The visit also impressed on my mind the tough challenge we will face to bring new high speed trains into the centre of Birmingham, if we decide to proceed with a high speed line from London to the West Midlands once a proposal for this has been completed by High Speed Two (the company set up for this purpose in January). There will be precious little spare capacity even after the rebuilding of New Street, nor at the neighbouring Snow Hill and Moor Street stations. Considerable imagination and ingenuity will be required.
Anyway, the best thing about New Street was the leaving of it, which I did, on an Arriva train to Chester via Shrewsbury and a short foray into Wales through Wrexham, in the stimulating company of Pete Waterman. Accompanied by a journalist from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, which will broadcast a piece about our meeting on Monday morning, Pete talks about rail with passion and enthusiasm. Despite being one of the world’s most successful pop music moguls, he tells me he would never dream of using anything but the train on his regular trips between London and his home in Warrington.
No-one champions Britain’s railways, past and present, better than Pete, and I spent two hours enthralled by his life story and his current projects. He’s so passionate, he admits that in the early 1960s, when he first got his hands on the original version of ‘The Loco-Motion’, (the record that inspired him to take up a career in music and which he later produced for Kylie Minogue), the only thing that jarred with him was the fact that the UK distributers had decided to leave the original picture of an American train on the record sleeve, instead of replacing it with a British one, as he would have done.
Pete started out in 1961 as a railway apprentice at Stafford Road depot in Wolverhampton, the site of which our train passed. Trains have remained his second love, even at the height of his music career. His LNWR company restores steam trains, including the Royal Scot (built in 1923), which he is taking this weekend by truck to run on the preserved Llangollen Railway, which runs close to the line we travelled between Shrewsbury and Wrexham. The weekend starts with a beer festival at Llangollen station tonight, so it looks like an exciting day out for every member of the family. Pete is passionate about training more youngsters for a career on the railways, and we discussed ideas for expanding apprenticeships.
After a quick lunch at Chester, it was onto the Euston express, which I left at Crewe – great railway town and constituency of the redoubtable rail protagonist Gwyneth Dunwoody until her death last year – for a train to Manchester Airport. The airport station, with a newly built third platform, is a success story of the last year. The airport manager told me that nearly one in ten of all airport passengers now arrive or leave by train, which is nearly double the proportion of a few years ago. There are ten trains an hour from the airport station serving Manchester Piccadilly and most of the major regional towns and cities, including Leeds, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Huddersfield, Preston, Blackpool, Sheffield, Wigan, Crewe and Southport. Ideas are afoot for expanding services further still, and the station has been designed with plenty of spare space for extra platforms. There is also a modern and very passenger friendly bus and coach station, right alongside the rail station. An encouraging example of a genuinely integrated transport policy, and a model for elsewhere.
I decided I had the time to go onto Sheffield. The Transpennine line included three long tunnels, the longest (Totley) at over three miles, as the train winds through the stunningly beautiful Hope Valley before joining the Midland main line at Dore and running north-east into Sheffield. Apart from this final stretch the line speed never rises above 70mph, which makes the term ‘Trans-Pennine Express’ a bit of a misnomer, although the service is greatly improved in recent years.
Sheffield station is a real delight. It has been beautifully restored in recent years and has excellent retail and waiting facilities for passengers – open to a reasonable hour in the evening, unlike my recent experience at Southampton Central station. After three days of station visits, I have a rank order of major stations. Sheffield is at the top, Birmingham New Street and Southampton Central are not.
The journey from Sheffield to Carlisle was delayed because of children on the track outside Manchester. As a result, I missed my connection at Preston. But so far today, Friday, everything has been to time as I approach Middlesbrough at 10.30 having left Carlisle at 07.13.
I have seen some stunning scenery from the train over the past week, but the last day – from Carlisle to Inverness via Middlebrough and Newcastle – beats everything so far. The west-east line from Carlisle follows Hadrian’s Wall a few miles south through the Tyne Gap. Hexham, where I changed trains half way to Newcastle, has the best waiting room of any I visited. It was like being invited into a neighbour’s front parlour; it was so smart I hesitated to enter with my shoes on. Hexham station itself is maintained and restored to a quality better than any rural station I passed through in the week except Wymondham, on the Norwich to Ely line, which was so immaculate in its Victorian splendour (as we stopped to pick up one passenger at dawn on Thursday) that it must be waiting to star in the next series of Poirot.
However, the line line from Perth to Inverness – the final leg of Friday’s journey on the “Highland Chieftain” which I joined at Newcastle – is so breathtaking as it passes over Druimuachdar Summit that I impulsively wanted to get off at the next stop (Aviemore) and spend the week-end there. But I had committed to meet Danny Alexander, MP for Inverness, with a group of Highland rail experts, so I reluctantly stayed put and enjoyed a very pleasant two hours with Danny and his constituents in the grand Royal Highland Hotel next to Inverness station. Their main concern was to speed up the Highland services. The line south to Glasgow and Edinburgh may be beautiful but it is also far slower than the car journey – it takes three and a quarter hours to Edinburgh at the fastest. The line east to Aberdeen, which I set out on at 4.57 am the following morning (to the astonishment of the train driver when I introduced myself), is faster than the car, but it still takes 2 hours 13 minutes to cover the 108 miles.
From Aberdeen it was south to Edinburgh, and 15 minutes to find my way with some difficulty through cramped and poorly signed Waverley station, via three staircases and two footbridges, to a distant platform for the 10am express to London, which I left at York to visit the Railway Museum and see the new Tornado steam engine arrive from London pulling a set of Orient Express carriages. For the final part of the journey south of Newcastle I – by prior arrangement – joined the driver in the cab for him to explain to me the slower line speeds which apply on the east coast main line north of Darlington (a major issue if we are to introduce high-speed services from London to Scotland). But far more interesting was Steve’s career story: a former company finance director, who so wanted to become a train driver that for 18 months he badgered GNER (which then operated the line) with his CV in order to get the job, which he says is by far the most rewarding of his life.
At York I was greeted by two sets of protesters – one, protesting about plans to gate York station, when I got off the train, and another group, assembled under the slogan “Lord Adonis please cut rail fares” as I arrived at the museum. Both groups were polite – the second completely disarmed me by presenting a bunch of fresh flowers – and keen to talk through the issues at stake, which we did. We discussed the range of very cheap fares on offer for those who are able to shop around and, in particular, are able to book at least a day in advance. As for gating, this is an essential revenue protection measure, but it obviously needs to be done sensitively, particularly in a station like York, a visitor attraction in its own right with a through route across the station. It is also important that people can meet friends and family members directly off trains where they need help, and that the gating allows for this.
I and my family – who were there to greet me off the train along with the protesters – then had a wonderful three hours with Andrew Scott and his dedicated team of curators and guides at the Railway Museum. Hugh Bailey, MP for York, joined us for the arrival of the Tornado and for pictures next to the Japanese bullet train in the main exhibition hall (much as I like the age of steam, it is high-speed trains which excite me as the model for the future). As an historian, I most enjoyed my hour in the museum’s archives, sampling the remarkable collection of historic drawings, posters, timetables, photos and papers, all meticulously preserved. The 19th century timetables were especially interesting, and another antidote to “golden age-ism”. The 1875 timetable from York to London featued only a few trains a day, all taking many hours longer than now.
As we left the museum for Evensong at the Minster and tea at Betty’s, I thought I was off duty. But no, a sidesman at the Minster recognised me and we chatted in the choir after the service about his work as a timetable planner for Trans-Pennine Express, the train company which is based at York. Two hours later, after a Radio Five Live interview on the station platform on my mobile as the train drew in, it was on to the 19.36 south to Kings Cross for the final leg of my 2,200 mile journey. Another train on time to the minute – although no-one checked our tickets at any point on the journey, so some rather more elementary revenue protection measures than gating York station may be in order as a first step.
I enjoyed my week on the railways so much, and learned so much, that writing on Sunday morning I could easily embark on another week visiting different lines and talking to their passengers and rail staff. But alas, Parliament is back tomorrow, the pile of papers requiring attention is getting out of control, and I need to do something about the many action points noted during the week before they are forgotten. It is one thing to spot a problem; quite another to get it sorted – and now the difficult bit of ministerial life begins.
Thank you to all my readers for your kind comments – and the unkind ones too. I’m told blogging can become an addiction; one it’s probably best for me not to acquire while in government, so it’s now goodbye from me.