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The view from the front of the train

May 10, 2012

Most men, if they’re honest, have wanted to drive a train at some point in their life.  Others want to whizz round in a racing car or score a goal for England or a try for Wales.  Anyone who’s seen me try to kick a ball (and I avoided this as much as possible in school) will know that the latter is unlikely.  While visiting engineering apprentices I have actually sat in a racing car (it’s a tight squeeze) but the engine was turned off.  But this evening I did get to at least sit with the train driver while we hurtled from Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads at 125mph.  So that’s one boyhood interest finally ticked off.

As an MP I meet with Bristol’s train company First Great Western on a frequent basis.  Big changes are being made over the next few years to the mainline to London.  Reading station is being expanded, freeing up a bottleneck that often delays trains. The Coalition Government has given the go ahead for electrification of the line.  This will bring new trains and faster services to Bristol within five years.  My journey home today was an opportunity to get a front row seat to discuss these changes and see things from the driver’s perspective.

So here – for friends and constituents who may be train enthusiasts, or even spotters, here’s an account of what the journey looks like from the front of the train.

I travelled on the 4pm train out of Paddington.  I was sat in engine 43152, which unlike many trains, doesn’t have a name.  Our driver was Nigel, who has been a train driver for over 25 years.  For the first mile or so the train travels at just 50mph, as far as Kensal Green.  Up to Acton it’s allowed to double the speed and from then onwards it really does travel at 125mph.  Curiously, it doesn’t really feel that fast up front and the train even curves around bends in the track at that high speed.

The trains that run between London, Bristol and South Wales are some of the oldest on Britain’s rail network.  As a boy in the 1970s I remember seeing an “Inter-City 125” train for the first time at Cardiff station.  The cab design is remarkably simple, with not much of a hint of 21st century technology and gizmos.  A bit like an automatic car, there are just 4 gear settings, “FOR” (forward), “ENG ONLY” (ie neutral), “REV” (reverse) and “OFF”.  Speed is selected by a sliding black knob to the right of the driver, pulling it from “OFF” through 1, 2, 3 and 4 to MAX and you’re at 125mph.  The brake is similar, operated by the driver’s left hand.   Speed from 0 to 140mph is marked by a simple traditional clock face speedometer, with no confusing kilometres.

None of this has changed since the trains entered service.  What has changed is the safety features and some guidance on fuel consumption.  These heavy beasts get through huge amounts of diesel.  There’s certainly no sat nav in the cab.  But the train does communicate with track side sensors and a small screen gives information on the ETA at the next station. Every minute or so Nigel has to touch a pedal, responding to a loud beep that’s testing he’s alert.  Like all drivers he has thorough health checks (eyesight, hearing, blood pressure and an ECG) every 5 years.  Different beeps alert him to oncoming signals – though you can see Red, 1 Yellow, double Yellow and Green quite easily from a long distance.

Once the train is travelling at 125mph the small screen with station destination times occasionally says “COAST” and Nigel moves the speed knob to OFF and the train happily coasts at about 120mph, such is the momentum of a heavy train.  I learned that Brunel’s “billiard table” flat route is a myth as the train goes up and down gradients.  And from Swindon to Bristol it’s downhill much of the way, coasting at over 100mph.

From the cab you get to see the huge variety of bridges over the line.  These are going to be one of the main challenges for electrification. They are too low to carry the cables over the train.  But instead of rebuilding the bridges (many of which are of attractive red brick construction) the lines will have to be sunk.

After leaving Chippenham station at 17.13 we coast downhill towards Box tunnel. The tunnel is dead straight, so that over-used political cliche of “light at the end of the tunnel” is immediately apparent.  We travel through at 90mph in pitch darkness, punctuated by circles of light from the three ventilation shafts.

The approach to Bath, through the cuttings and many bridges of Sydney Gardens, will be another challenge for the engineers attempting to hook up the electric cables.  From Bath we coast at 95mph gradually down hill to Bristol Temple Meads.  It’s rained virtually all the way but as we pull into platform 13 the rain stops.  I’m sure the journey is prettier in May sunshine but it was great fun all the same.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin McAree permalink
    May 11, 2012 12:03 am

    You lucky, lucky get! I guess I need to be elected to parliament to bag a train cab ride then?

    I trust you still had a ticket.😉

  2. John Rippon permalink
    May 11, 2012 12:41 am

    Lucky you: another free perk for MPs!

  3. Hugh Balls permalink
    May 11, 2012 6:21 am

    But did you ask them why a return ticket from Bristol to London Paddington at peak business hours is £179 whilst the same journey from Worcester to London Paddington is only £71. Where does that £108 extra profit go from Europe’s most expensive mainline journey (per mile)?

  4. May 11, 2012 7:46 am

    Stephen could you also possibly comment on the proposals to remove all the actual ticket staff at TM and replace them all with machines? The machines regularly malfunction, they don’t give you advice, they can’t sell you an off peak ticket before the off peak time starts (which means you pay full price, even though entitled to off peak price) and ticket staff are invaluable. The pricing system of course is a joke, one of the most expensive bits of track to travel on and very difficult to get an advanced ticket to travel before 9. Ticket staff and train users alike are very concerned about both price and ticket purchase changes. Any comments would be very welcome. Thanks, Thangam (one of your constituents)

    • May 11, 2012 9:06 pm

      Could you tell me what is your source for “proposals to remove all the actual ticket staff at TMs and replace them all with machines” ? I am aware – and have supported FGW’s application for extra machines but these would not be at the expense of staff.

      • May 14, 2012 7:44 am

        Hi Stephen. My sources: a) my eyes – I use trains all over the UK and I can see what is happening in other stations, to the very great detriment of customers (human ticket sellers down to 1 or none, leading to over-charging, no help for elderly, problems when machines break down). and b) staff working at TM, who I ask regularly about this situation. If you can find out more that would be great. Thanks

      • Angus Gregson permalink
        June 3, 2012 12:06 am

        I thought they’d already started this: three times out of the last four I’ve tried calling at the travel centre (all between 10 and 4 on a weekeday) it has been closed “regrettably”. Typically a 10 minute wait at the main windows, which must be even more frustrating for passengers needing to get an imminent train.

  5. robertjessetelford permalink
    May 11, 2012 7:48 am

    Any comment on the huge rise in ticket prices, Stephen?

    I’d be interested to know how much your office spends on train tickets a year. Some of us have given up on the trains and go by coach now.

    • May 11, 2012 9:12 pm

      I wish we didn’t have a privatised railway and have said so many times. But the opportunity to halt it was lost in 1997. Now we must make the best of the situation and set tough franchise terms for improved service levels.

      Re my travel – all my travel costs are available on numerous web sites (incl they work for you) . Since 2005 I have usually had the lowest travel to London costs. I have only ever used the train. All other MPs have claimed mileage for driving their cars to London, some exclusively, some mix rail and car. I am the only MP NEVER to claim for any mileage in the Bristol area, even though I often use my car to get around the constituency.

  6. May 11, 2012 12:22 pm

    Awesome🙂 Lovely ‘visual’ description… I’ve been very fortunate to travel in the driver’s cab on the monorails in Disneyworld with my daughter and ex hubby🙂

  7. smoothsilk permalink
    May 11, 2012 6:38 pm

    Thanks for your Train journey experience Stephen, I wish I was able to use Trains more & sell my car, which I try not to use very often now I am retired. Pity our Bus passes can’t be used on the trains, or at least get a reduction in the fare. Redland Station is near where I live but as I go to Bath often I use 4 Buses there & back, which is second best.

    As we drove past Temple Meads this evening it was good to see the demolition started at last of those horrid red brick buildings to the right of the station approach. A new view of Temple Meads is gradually unfolding. I also thought what an opportunity lost that the Old Brunel Rail Station had not been used for the new Bus Station & the Buses outside on that vast area, instead of being squeezed in at its present site, which would have been far better used for a BRI multi deck car park, which is badly needed as I found out when dropping a friend near the main entrance recently. There is quite enough stress with illness itself & we don’t need more with car parking issues. Sorry to ramble on but its very sad when the best uses for sites seem to have been overlooked.

    • May 11, 2012 9:15 pm

      I think the Severn Beach line is actually very good value for money, though obviously not when compared to a free bus pass!

      Yes, I noticed the building demolition when I was in and out of the station this week. Hopefully, whatever replaces it will be a big improvement at such an important site. The new Enterprise Zone, opened by the Chancellor a couple of weeks ago, should transform the area.

  8. June 2, 2012 4:09 am

    Hi Steven. I am not a lover of trains myself, preferring to travel, on the rare occasions that I get time (from my garden, allotment, church, the gym, the Salvation Army, Slimming World etc.and the upkeep of the 10 flower beds here), by coach. However, your description of your train journey home from London was extremely interesting. Thank you. Iris B.

  9. John Rippon permalink
    June 3, 2012 11:22 pm

    As I understand it, the manned ticket offices will be closed down and replaced with ticket machines with one member of the present staff being reassigned to help the bewildered to operate the machines/control the barriers “Up Front”. The remainder of the staff will be reassigned to Platform duties. All train inquiries etc. will be diverted to a central pool (Based in India??). I have no idea what will happen about the consequent over-manning of Platform staff: nobody seems to want to talk about that.

    As a wheelchair-bound chap I already have severe problems with coaches and trains, which I have to book a long time in advance. Try traveling by coach from Bristol to London with no stops and no possibility of getting to the loo!!

  10. May 30, 2014 11:07 am

    Not sure electrification will do much for local train services, which are being cut, e.g. 1714 BTM to Westbury removed from new timetable

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