Oh, God, back to early starts again. Still I really shouldn’t complain as today will be a fascinating one and the somewhat cryptic title of this rolling blog will explained later this morning when I do something few people ever get chance to do and that I haven’t done for about 20 years. But first, I’ve got to top up with caffeine then get my arse out of the door and walk to the station in time to catch the 06:17 from Halifax to Leeds. Feel free to keep popping back as I make my way by train to Leamington Spa, after which all will be revealed. Of course I’ve got to get there first, which can always be fun…
The stroll to the station was very pleasant this morning even if I did feel like a Sherpa climbing up the cobbled hill to Spring Edge. I’m carrying all my camera kit plus clothing and toiletries for a few nights away but using a rucsac not a ‘wheelie’ suitcase. Still, it got the blood pumping! Thankfully the rain had abated, leaving the roads and pavements glistening but me dry. I passed nary a soul on my way, the only noise was from the dawn chorus as the area’s birdlife sprang into song.
My progress was so swift that I missed catching an earlier train by a minute, I heard the 06:00 to Leeds powering up the incline out of town as I arrived. There’s no rush. I have a nearly 20 minute connection time at Leeds and my train (the 06:17) starts from here as its the hourly service to Hull.
As I typed this the inbound service arrived in the shape of a noisy Class 158. Emptying out a couple of passengers before scuttling off to the reversing siding in order to head back.
I’m now enjoying the warmth and comfort (and USB chargers) of 158756 as it trundles towards Leeds.
It’s not a busy service right now. There’s only 6 of us in the first of the three cars but I expect that to change once we reach Bradford.
Sure enough, there were dozens of passengers waiting for us at Interchange and the numbers in my car have tripled. The station’s a hive of activity with 3 of the four platforms full with trains for East and West, plus Grand Central’s first train of the day to London Kings Cross.
Oh, I didn’t get chance to post this earlier but whilst I was at Halifax this notice caught my eye. You know when you scan something with half an eye as you know what you expect to read but then your brain says “hang on a minute”!
Arriving at Leeds as the station was slowly waking up I had just enough time to grab a couple of pictures and stretch my legs before my next train arrived in the shape of a pair of 4-car Cross-Country Voyagers. Despite the hour the train was already quite busy although enough folk departed at Leeds to allow me to bag on of my preferred seats – the airline ones nearest the vestibule which have extra legroom. I’m settled in with laptop powered up and a flask of coffee as I’m on this train for the next 2 hours 10 minutes. We’re taking the ‘scenic’ route to Birmingham via Sheffield, Chesterfield, Derby and Tamworth. This will allow me to gauge just how busy this trains and the stations we call at are nowadays. Mind you, we called at Wakefield Westgate a few minutes ago where there was no shortage of trade for this train. Most rows of seats have at least one occupant now as we head to Sheffield.
The frustrating thing is that in a couple of decades time we were meant to be able to look forward to this journey’s time being slashed by 58% thanks to the Eastern leg of HS2. Now that’s been mothballed. It will still have to be built because the alternative, the Government’s (dis)Integrated Rail Plan is a fiction. It cannot possibly deliver the time savings claimed without seriously screwing up regional services and capacity on the East Coast and Midland Main Lines. Eventually, the penny will drop (it already has with industry experts) meaning HS2s Eastern leg will have to happen, but yet again we’ve kicked the can down the road in typically British penny-pinching fashion. In the meantime, it looks like I’ll be using Voyagers for some time yet, at least until HS2 as far as Crewe opens anyway…
We’ve arrived at (and left) Sheffield, having traversed the rather depressing landscape of industrial and railway dereliction and decay around Rotherham. The gloomy skies and drizzle added to the effect. Some still cling to the fantasy that Brexit and empty slogans about ‘global Britain’ will restore the fortunes of places like this, but fantasies are all they are. The UK’s a service economy nowadays. We’ve not been the ‘workshop of the world’ for a century now and those days are never coming back, despite the nostalgic noises from some quarters. We need to be looking to the future, not trying to bring back the past…
My car lost the majority of its clientele at Sheffield but they were replaced by more people awaiting our arrival. My memory banks seem to remember that the average length of a journey on Cross-Country is between 50-60 miles despite the fact these trains run heroic distances like Aberdeen-Plymouth. I’m going to see how many time the two seats nearest me change occupants. Right now they’re both on their second passenger although the sex has changed from male to female in each.
We’re now at Chesterfield and the seat shuffle begins again. Several Sheffield joiners have left, they’ve been replaced by a greater number of newbies so our numbers are still growing. Sadly, the weather’s deteriorating as the clouds have closed ranks to eject a barrage of rain. Once everyone had settled into the seats I took a trip to the loo and counted 32 people in this car which also houses the extended luggage/bike racks where the old buffet counter used to be.
We’ve just departed a very wet Derby where the seat shuffle was less acute than before. Quite a few people have joined us but few have left and the two young ladies occupying the seats around me are still bashing away on their keyboards. The train’s obviously filled up as we’ve a constant stream of ‘walk-throughs’ (people walking along the cars looking for a free seat) passing by.
Having left Derby and turned west towards our next stop the trains really got into its stride. We’ve flown past field after field that have been turned into lakes by days of heavy rain – and there’s no end to it yet. A rapid deceleration brought us to a prompt stand at Burton-On-Trent where we picked up another gaggle of folk, leaving my coach almost full and people electing to stand in the vestibules.
We’ve made our last port of call before Birmingham. Tamworth, where several people have departed to be be replaced by a bedraggled troupe of newcomers who’ve been getting soaked in the rain which is being made worse by the wind whipping it along. I’m beginning to wonder what to expect when I get to my destination. It looks like I’m in for a soaking when I trek between New St and Moor St stations in Birmingham as I’m not sure my umbrella’s going to be much use in these conditions! We arrive there in 10 minutes so it’s time to pack up the laptop and revert to using my smartphone…
Crossing Birmingham was just as wet and miserable as I expected. The rain seemed to have kept people at home which meant I made double-quick time between the two stations so was able to make an earlier train. It makes no difference in the long-run, it simply gives me longer to wait for my ride in Leamington. I’m currently sat on a Chiltern service to Marylebone which is pretty quiet. Or rather – it was until we stopped at Solihull!
A good indicator of how people are returning to work (via the railway) is looking at how busy station car parks are again now. At the height of the pandemic they were deserted. I’ve passed several this morning like the one on this line at Widney Manor where nearly all the spaces are taken.
Arrived! The good news is the rain appears to be abating. The bad news is the lovely old buffet on platform 2 at Leamington Spa station has never reopened which is a great shame. It’s still a lovely looking station with its period buildings and beautifully kept garden. But I will miss the buffet. Now I’ve a little time to kill before my lift arrives…
Now I can reveal who ‘Dorothy’ is…
Well, that was a long day! The weather when we arrived at Long Itchington was appalling – as you can see from the puddles in the pictures which were taken from the visitor centre before we donned our PPE and headed down into the tunnel with out escort to have a guided tour of ‘Dorothy’. Visitor number are limited for safety reasons so rail engineer Gareth Dennis and I went first. These are amazing machines and you’ll be able to read the full details of my visit in another blogs and magazine articles. Here’s a few pictures to whet your appetite.
Behind the business end of ‘Dorothy’ are 11 of these motors which power the cutting head.
Inside the control room aboard ‘Dorothy’ 8-10 metres under the ancient woodland of Long Itchington.
Time to relax after a long day. I’m staying in Leamington tonight as I’m meeting a local farmer tomorrow whose kindly offered to show me around the area and some of the HS2 worksites but also (especially) some of the ecological and mitigation work that’s part of the project. If you listened to some of the projects opponents they make it sound like it’s Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes sweeping across the landscape, laying waste to everything they come into contact with. The truth is very different and tomorrow’s a chance to see exactly what’s being done on this part of the HS2 route to ensure there’s a biodiversity net gain from HS2. I’ll explain more tomorrow, as the person showing me round is anything but a member of an HS2 PR team!
I must admit to having been a little apprehensive about staying in Leamington tonight as it and I have a long history which includes some bittersweet memories. Truth be told, they weren’t an issue, which surprised me. To be honest, the place feels very different from those days. It’s shabbier for a start and I’m not just talking about the fabric of the town. Genteel is not a word I’d use to describe the place, despite its Spa moniker. Seeing rough-sleepers huddled in the doorway of the old House of Fraser on the High St set the scene. Then overhearing a quartet of young adults in a pub (that wasn’t even a Wetherspoons) loudly broadcasting their attempts to arrange Social Services support over a mobile phone was another. This is not the Leamington I remember, although on reflection, there was always an element of that. Maybe it’s because I’ve been away for so long? The other side of the coin was the fact a lot of the pubs (and I suspect other businesses too) in the centre seem to be kept alive by the town’s student population as they’re the only people out and about on an early weeknight like today.
Anyways, it’s time to draw today’s rolling blog to a close. Tomorrow is another day which will see me exploring around the local area before pitching up in London. Stay tuned – as they say…
I’ve a favour to ask…
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