ECML

For those unfamiliar with this not-quite-an-acronym, it stands for the East Coast Mainline – the railway that links London to Edinburgh and, some might say, goes on to Aberdeen.  For my money – and as they don’t allow me to ride it for free, it is my money – this is one of the world’s great railway journeys.  It may lack vistas of majestic wildebeest or snow-capped mountain ranges but the traveller gazing out of the window is still offered a smorgasbord of visual treats, albeit of a more understated nature.

Some may feel that the eastern side of the country is boring and flat – and while the latter descriptor may have some truth (a truth probably rather less apparent to the cyclist on the ground) it is far from boring.  For the power station buff, almost the full range of UK generation options is visible – from examples of coal, gas and nuclear powered stations to solar farms (a poor choice of word, as the sun isn’t grown there, merely harvested) and a veritable plethora of windmills.  As the train heads north, the sights (perhaps) grow more obviously dramatic.  As you leave York, there is often a chance to see a steam train in action round the back of the National Railway Museum.  Inspirational views then come thick-and-fast:

  • Durham opens the bidding with the stunning double-header of castle and minster,
  • Newcastle responds with the Tyne and its bridges
  • Alnmouth, a more distant view, raises the stakes and is just one of the most beautiful places on earth (I like to think on a parallel earth, another me is living there)
  • Berwick offers the Tweed followed by a spectacular cliff-top ride before…
  • The final stretch into Edinburgh closes the bidding with rising hills and views of the Firth of Forth.

Flying may be faster, and often cheaper – assuming you have minimal luggage (always my own, personal aim) and little need for liquids or blades (and I always feel naked north of the border without at least a Claymore at my hip) – but it cannot compete in the viewing stakes.  The country seen from the air has a certain novelty value (and is something few of my ancestors could have experienced), but I like the chance to be up-close and personal with a view.  In most flights, at some stage the Captain (or his First Officer) will come over the intercom and hope that we are enjoying the flight.  I always feel ‘enduring’ would be a better word as I’m strapped into a cramped, uncomfortable seat in a metal tube many feet above the ground.  On short flights, there is no entertainment laid on – except for the safety demonstration – and the food is generally unimpressive and expensive.  Any fun that exists will be of my own making – and could have been arranged and enjoyed more readily at home.

The train is (at its best) a very different story: more space to sit and move around with an ever-rolling vista to enjoy out of the window.  You can carry bags full of knives and carry your own bowser and nobody bats an eyelid.  Travelling first class (as is my tendency for longer distances), I enjoy plenty of legroom and (by booking in advance) can easily eat and drink the modest difference in cost over ‘standard’ accommodation.  I think the railways – away from commuter routes – have managed to maintain a little more of their historic romance than the airlines: though a lot has still fallen by the wayside over the years and was probably only available to the rich, even in the past.  I do worry that the economic inequality of today is not generating the same level of romance as its counterpart from yesteryear (or perhaps it just needs the passage of time to work its magic – but I have my doubts).

I have ridden the ECML a lot over the years: for a while I commuted weekly between Newcastle and London and more recently have visited Edinburgh several times each year.  The glory days were under GNER – when, by talking to the staff, I learned how to walk safely along a moving train and discovered that serving food and drink to passengers in First Class was a decent job (it may still be, but I’ve not had such detailed conversations with the “on-train team” in recent years).  Sadly, those days are long gone, poor old GNER was finished off by issues in its parent company: this remains one of life’s little tragedies and a useful reminder that privatised rail companies don’t have to be dreadful.  I fear I may be viewing GNER through the same rose-tinted glasses as an earlier generation views LNER: so if anyone knows that it was actually a dreadful corporation, please take pity on an old codger and keep this knowledge to yourself.  Anyway, I must accept that those days have gone – and I must say that VTEC (the current franchisee) laid on a very fine journey north last Wednesday.

As a result of my somewhat regular transits, the ECML route is very familiar to me and arriving into London, Newcastle and Edinburgh all have the feel of a home-coming of sorts.  In fact, I have come to realise that, for me, many journeys have a feeling of home about them – perhaps more than the static locations in which I have actually resided.  As well as rail journeys, cycling into Sawston, the bus route from Edinburgh to my friend’s house and walking certain streets in Crouch End, Cambridge or Southampton all bring a feeling of belonging.  Is it normal, I wonder, for the domestic realm to be extended out to take in a certain portion of ‘journey’s end’?  For me, I think, this extended demesne forms an essential part of the feeling of ‘home’ – without it, the whole concept becomes too isolated and solipsistic.  Or is this all just part of my continuing (and doomed) attempts to escape from myself?

Railway lipogram

Oulipo ahoy!  All down to Ian McMillan and his radio companions…

On arriving at Southampton, I stand to part from train – spotting sign by door as I do.  All things must avoid proximity to train door, it says (though not using such circumlocutory phrasing).  I find I am without my vacuum pump and so air blatantly mocks this railway company’s foolish command.  I also worry that I would find it difficult to withstand any Ursus maritimus with a wish to hang out by this high-risk door.  Your author too literal again?  Total application of this instruction is (luckily) not for yours truly to pull off, I might posit, and a lax out-turn was always going to occur.

But can you spot what is totally lacking from today’s post? Surprisingly hard to do, but I am an idiot (frankly) for trying.

Crossrail

I am a regular user of the railways, though not – at the moment – a commuter.  Rare is the week that I do not make at least one, roughly-matched pair of journeys.  I do this rather than drive (or fly) largely (I fondly imagine) as a matter of personal preference.  However, having recently read Michael Sandel’s Justice, I have come to realise that it is also a political act – by using the train (or even the bus), I rub shoulders (and sometimes more) with my fellow members of society and so interact with the full breadth of UK social class (all the way from standard to first) – an experience which is largely avoided by those who drive everywhere, (in)secure in their own private “bubble”.  Emboldened by my unintended political engagement and the recent news, I thought I’d be more overtly political about the railways.

In recent weeks, the government has produced a new “initiative” (one of depressingly many) that what is holding the north back is the transit time by rail between its major cities.  Now, I will admit that Trans-Pennine Express is a good description of the train’s route, but is rather optimistic about its pace (unless one is a geologist).  Nevertheless, I am somewhat sceptical that knocking 10 minutes off the transit time between Manchester and Leeds will create a new tiger economy in the lee of the M62.  However, the output from this government “tank” (which I presume is what remains once we has extracted any thought from a think tank) is that faster trains in the distant future is what is needed to revitalise the north.

I travel around the north by rail quite rarely, but I follow several people on Twitter who are regular users.  Now, I will readily admit that this sample has not been selected with the sort of rigour expected of a regular listener to More-or-Less – but remains interesting anecdotally.  I have yet to see any users of TPE complaining about the speed of service – but many complaints about the lack of seating and excess of unreliability.  The same story applies to Northern Rail – which, from what I read, must have taken its mission statement from one (or more) of Dante’s nine circles of hell (or perhaps the franchise is being operated by agoraphobic sardines?).  I would be willing to go out on a limb (statistically) and suggest that for the majority of northern rail users, some extra rolling stock and some decent maintenance tomorrow would be far more appreciated than standing for a slightly shorter period of time in a decade or two.  It would also be much quicker and cheaper to deliver.  One is left to ponder for whose benefit is the government intervening in the operation of the railway?  It would seem not to be either the passenger or tax payer – so who?

This question was brought into sharper focus today with the news about East Coast.  I have been a very regular user of the East Coast Main Line, and still use it in preference to flying to Edinburgh (which would be both cheaper and faster).  East Coast – the current state-owned operators – seem have made a decent fist of running it.  Not quite a return to the glory days of GNER, but a far better job than almost any other rail franchise.  I have seen much Twitter traffic praising East Cost and looking with horror on its replacement – which is not something you saw with the end of the First Capital Connect franchise (to take but a single example).  On the whole East Coast seems to be viewed somewhat favourably by its users – but this holds little sway with our political masters.  Once again, the government makes clear by its actions (rather than its empty rhetoric) that the railway is clearly not there to serve its customers.  It would seem to be there to deliver a hefty “bribe” to the Treasury (£3.3 billion – or 3.5 years of work from East Coast) and to enrich the shareholders of Virgin and Stagecoach.  I found myself wondering how many passengers East Coast carries per year and how this compares to the number of UK-voting and tax-paying shareholders of Stagecoach and Virgin (combined).  I suspect the balance would lie heavily in the East Coast passengers favour.  I have limited experience of Virgin’s rail performance, though news from a while back suggests that it is at least better than First Group, but Stagecoach have little in the way of laurels to rest upon.  Indeed, so toxic is Stagecoach’s name considered that despite owning 90% of the company which has “won” the franchise, it will be the Virgin “brand” that will appear on the trains.  Leaving the appearance that all rail routes to Scotland are controlled by Virgin – so much for competition!  (Well, in the private sector anyway – it still seems to be full-steam ahead in the public sector.  Perhaps the NHS should start dropping sizeable “bungs” to the Treasury?).   Or is this a punishment for the Scots for having the temerity to almost leave the union?

It is perhaps ironic that in many cases the UK government is keen to dispose of our “loss-making” railways to companies owned by foreign governments, who then make substantial profits from them.  We seem to be keen to give our money away to the French, Dutch and Germans – swapping subsidising our own railways with subsidising those of our neighbours.  This is very European minded of us, and quite at odds with most of the rhetoric produced by the government in recent weeks.

Political parties seem to be casting around randomly for policies that might appeal to voters in the run up to next year’s General Election.  Might I suggest that with the exception of East Coast (and perhaps a couple of others), promising to replace the current rail franchise holders would be a major vote winner.  It would also be one which avoids overly strong parallels with the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany – which would make for a nice change.

In the meantime, I shall be reviewing my travel arrangements to Scotland – a slow boat, perhaps?

Standard Class Citizen

As has been well established by now, I tend to make my way by means of bicycle or train.  Oft, I try to combine the two by cycling to the station and then catching a train.  Usually, this requires me to leave my steed at Whittlesford Parkway whilst onward I journey.  There used to be four Sheffield stands on the Sawston side of the station to allow my mount to be safely secured.  However, as with so much in this country, these were not maintained for many years and so became badly afflicted by rust (a cynic might view this as a metaphor for the whole rail network).

For a while, the rust held the stands together – but over the last couple of weeks, three of the four have completely disintegrated (and the last can’t be long for this world).  So, I filled in a complaint form and sent it off to Greater Anglia (who are the operators of Whittlesford Parkway station) requesting their replacement (the cycle stands, rather than Greater Anglia).  Yesterday, the post brought a reply – from someone claiming the title of Customer Relations Advisor.  I hadn’t realised I was in need of advice on my Customer Relations and as the letter contained no obvious counsel on this topic, I fear they will remain as poor as ever.

Apparently, the Area Station Manager (hereinafter referred to as the ASM) is going to look for funds to improve the situation: perhaps he could take a peek down the back of his sofa?  Curiously, as I have previously noted, there was no shortage of funds to re-brand everything on the station when Greater Anglia took over the local rail franchise.  Ironically, one of the items re-branded was a poster warning customers to take care when using the stairs of the footbridge.  Customers from Sawston will now have to navigate this same footbridge whilst carrying their bicycles (twice per journey) in search of a secure anchorage – a somewhat dangerous operation, and one not obviously made any safer by the re-branded poster.

Should our ASM find a few quid, and have any left over after replacing the bike racks, he might also consider fixing the station departure indicator display on Platform 1 which has not been operational since January.

I recently discovered that more than 160,000 journeys either start or end at Whittlesford Parkway each year (of which I should be able to claim a few score).  This is rather more than many other stations on the same line, though I’ve noticed that many of these have brand new cycle racks – and several stations have recently gained a new footbridge (with lift!) and/or a platform extension.  Clearly, we are being treated as second (sorry, standard) class citizens!  What have the folk of Whittlesford (or perhaps Duxford, Pampisford or Sawston) done to offend the Dutch (who now run our trains)?  I’d have expected better of the Dutch, who at home seem pretty good at looking after their cyclists: which perhaps provides a warning on the dangers of the stereotype.

So many questions…

But only time (and space) to pose a few of the queries that have recently foxed me in the hope that somewhere out there in cyberspace (so wrong, a Greek steersman starts with a kappa – see below) a reader may be able to offer the gift of enlightenment.

Last week, I suffered from a cold sore in an inconvenient, and unusual, location.  It was still on my face, but had migrated away from my lips (which usually play host to the herpes simplex virus) and was heading for my right eye.  Is this migration one of the mysterious seven signs of ageing which Oil of Olay (née Ulay) have been banging on about all these years?

Anyway, the new location of the viral eruption made shaving seem rather a risky option –  with either a prolonging of the attack and/or copious bleeding seeming to be likely consequences.  So, as I had no formal events planned, I allowed my beard to grow for a good week.  I am not a great fan of the beard – it tends to itch after a while and now has rather more in common with Santa Claus than I would like – and so was rather pleased when I could finally banish it.  I feel that its removal took years off me – and this led me to wonder if there is any point in a chap’s life when the addition of a beard will make him seem younger?  Or are they always ageing?

My studies have now moved on to Plato – and in particular his work known as The Laches.  In addition to Socrates (who I’ve realised was an extremely irritating cove), this involves two Protagonists: Laches and Nicias who were both Athenian generals from the Peloponnesian wars, though I don’t think my earlier reading of Thucydides is going to help with my next assignment (and why does WordPress have the author in its dictionary, but not the key adjective from his masterwork?).  The generals’ names are pronounced as Lay-keys and Nick-e-ass, so why have the Greek middle consonants been transliterated to produce a soft consonant in normal English speech (and any Romance language for that matter)?   You might think it is to avoid confusion between transliteration of chi and kappa but no, as Nicias is spelt with a kappa and Laches with a chi.  It can only have been done through incompetence or to (successfully) confuse later scholars.

When transliterating from Chinese to English there seems even less excuse for such behaviour as there is no original alphabet to preserve.  If the Chinese phoneme exists in English, it should be perfectly possible to reproduce it so that the transliterated word can be pronounced phonetically.  So why is Feng Shui – a concept debased in translation to re-arranging your home furnishings – pronounced fung shway?  What are we gaining from using the current, totally mis-leading spelling?

Who is in charge of transliteration anyway?  I feel they may have been subject to insufficient oversight – not that I’m volunteering to take-over, you understand, I’d just like to see greater consistency.

My final query comes from my travel over the recent holiday weekend.  The Highways Agency often seems to ensure that roadworks are tidied away over holiday periods: I presume to reduce travel delays.  Network Rail takes precisely the opposite position and schedules its engineering works explicitly to occur during holiday periods: to maximise delays?  How can it make sense for such diametrically opposed positions to be taken for the roads and rails?  Only one position can be correct, but which is better?  As Harry Hill used to say, the only way to find out is: FIGHT!

Wav’d over by that flaming brand

My employer has recently re-branded the portion of its empire in which I am, occasionally, employed.  You’d need to be fairly sharp-eyed to spot the differences: there is perhaps a slightly different shade of blue coupled with a change of the font for the company name and the order of the subsidiary and holding company names have been switched in all the email addresses.  I’m sure these changes will dramatically energise the “business” (I know the free T-shirt has started my corporate juices flowing): though I fear the “business” involved will be that of the printers who will benefit from producing all the new corporate stationery and business cards now needed.

Re-branding does seem weirdly popular: it is almost impossible, after a week away, to visit the supermarket and find all your regular comestible choices given that some marketing whizz will have totally changed the packaging of at least one.  On many occasions, this has led to me, “the consumer,” switching to a different brand as I thought they’d ceased stocking my traditional choice – which may represent something of an own goal for the employers of the aforementioned whizz.

Early in February, while I was hiding out in tropical Edinburgh, my local trains changed from being National Express East Anglia to Greater Anglia: reflecting a change in control of the local rail franchise.  There has been no detectable improvement in service – indeed, the London-bound departure indicator on Whittlesford Parkway station has been broken for the entire reign of Greater Anglia – but other changes were noticeable in less than a week.  Yes, you guessed it: everything was re-branded very quickly.  The staff, the trains, even the poster warning you to be careful not to fall over were re-branded at extraordinary speed.  Heaven forfend that we passengers should have to endure an incorrectly branded warning on the risks of clumsiness or a map of the network showing the lines in blue rather than red.  It reminds me of a sitcom family home just after a child is given a Dymo embossed label maker (circa the 1970s) – absolutely everything that didn’t move fast enough is rapidly labelled with the child’s name.

It is reassuring that the new Dutch owners have not been distracted from the important business of printing their name on everything by the largely irrelevant need to run a rail service.   Why waste money on the infrastructure when there is a plant tub in West Runton whose ownership is not clearly marked upon’t!

It should come as no surprise, given the diatribe above, that our title, first (to my knowledge) penned by John Milton, is from Paradise Lost.

Every action has an equal and opposite distraction

Which could well stand as a motto for this blog, or indeed my life.  Many will recognise that I am mis-quoting Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion – though that assumes I am referring to Sir Isaac rather than Kirsty when I mention Newton.  Am I right in thinking that Sir Isaac is the only physicist with a biscuit named after him?  I recognise that the Chocolate Cox could be problematic, but the Lord Kelvin Crunch sounds rather good.

Tuesday night I was in London with what remains of Mitch Benn at the monthly Distraction Club – perhaps a dangerous choice of event for me, given my existing proclivities in that direction.  However, to make the most of my One Day Travelcard before heading towards music and comedy (and, dare I say it, their juxtaposition) I took in some art at the Royal Academy.  I do find that a mixture of Degas, Russian Constructivism and John Maine RA is the perfect aperatif to a night with Mitch and friends, don’t you?

I failed to spot any celebs at the RA this time, but thereafter went to an Italian restaurant, used as the venue for an interview in the RA Magazine, and I think I may have struck pay dirt there.  I say ‘may’ as the chap sitting next to me at the bar (not an alcoholic one nor, as the Degas reference may have suggested, a barre), watching the very ordered running of the kitchen at Bucco di Lupo, seemed very familiar.  Now, that could just mean I’ve seen him in Waitrose or the gym – but I was in Soho and he was intermittently reading a script, so I think he was probably a famous young actor (though I have no idea as to his name).  Still, I think it counts in my attempts to capture some of the Heat “readership” for GofaDM.  You will be pleased to know that the food was excellent – and I believe both very authentic and well-reviewed by the professionals – and suitable fortification for the comedy that was to come.

As a result of the unique way in which our railways have been underfunded for decades, I only caught the first two-thirds of the Distraction Club.  Had I stayed any longer, my journey time back to Cambridgeshire would have extended from around an hour to nearly four – which I think would have made it slower than the days when horses were still the only form of traction  (I know Stagecoach provide the local buses, but I wasn’t expecting the name to be taken quite so literally).  It may be that the NXEA website was wrong, or perhaps we would be pushing the bus replacement from Bishops Stortford, but on a school night I decided against taking the risk.

Nevertheless, the DC was an excellent night out.  I must have seen at least 8 acts (which makes it less than a quid an act) combining music and comedy in the basement of a Cask-Marqued pub a few feet from Oxford Circus.  Even with the rail fare, it was still cheaper than going to see a comic at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge – and with better beer on offer!  And, of course, you get to see Mitch Benn and the Distractions – though I have never seen less of Mitch, not as a result of a pillar or any other obstruction but because he has managed to lose an impressive amount of weight.  He looked positively svelte!  The gig, with its seasonal theme, made even me, a man much taken with both bars and humbugs (though I could be tempted by a mint imperial too), feel a wee bit Christmassy!