A decade of change

On arrival our Conductor makes his announcement in a mellifluous Deep South accent - the cadences are pure Gone With The Wind, reminding me what a melting pot London is. That impression is reinforced at the busy Barking station, where a constant flow of people of different races and nationalities weave in all directions.

I’m here to catch a c2c service out to Essex, via the Dagenham branch, and I don’t have to wait long before one of the company’s white painted Class 357s arrives to carry me to Grays.

At this time of day the service is pretty empty, but the train is clean and the trip gives me great views of HS1, which was still under construction back in 2004. I also keep a wary eye on the turbulent sky, which (when I change trains at Grays) looks more appropriate for Mordor than Essex!

Carrying on, I venture as far as Laindon, another improved station showing investment. A new station building opened in 2005, and I watch as Network Rail staff busy themselves putting the finishing touches to the new pointwork at Pitsea Junction, which has been totally replaced.

The old London, Tilbury and Southend Line has shaken off its ‘Misery Line’ tag. National Express has kept a franchise with consistent punctuality and a string of incremental improvements to stations. And now a new train fleet is to be ordered, to cope with expansion.

Retracing my steps, at West Ham I take my leave of c2c and head for the Jubilee Line to Stratford. Previously I used the North London Line service from North Woolwich, but this closed in December 2006 with the line becoming part of a vastly expanded Docklands Light Railway, while the trackbed further south is being absorbed into Crossrail.

East London has seen an explosion of rail development in the past decade, and Stratford station is almost unrecognisable - it has grown new platforms all over the place! In 2004 I would never have dreamed that it would be the main gateway to an Olympic Games park, or that the former railway works would have disappeared under a massive shopping complex, yet that’s what has happened. How times change…

Another change is the Abellio Greater Anglia Class 360 that takes me to Colchester. The ‘Michael Caine’ voice-making announcement has been replaced by women, with no audible trace of an Essex accent.

The train is busy, but I find a seat and observe the changes at the lineside. The most obvious investment in the Great Eastern Main Line is dozens of new overhead line equipment gantries, installed to improve reliability in an overhead system prone to failure in the past.

But as we pass Shenfield I spot something that hasn’t changed - an old ‘Shark’ ballast plough rotting away in the Up siding, where it has lain abandoned for more than a decade!

As we head further away from London I notice several new footbridges that have been installed to close off foot crossings, while at Marks Tey a new ticket office has appeared.

I change trains at Colchester, which has just had a £2.2 million revamp that involved re-opening the South side entrance, a new ticket office and extended canopies. I also note that all the signal heads have been replaced with new Dorman single/double lens ones, and that substantial track renewal has taken place.

No sooner have I scribbled down all my observations, than the 1523 arrives to carry me to Norwich. It is a busy service, despite the hour. Feeling peckish, I walk to the buffet and buy a BLT sandwich and coffee from a cheerful and smartly dressed young lady, then find a seat in coach D.

The coffee has certainly improved since 2004, as has the rolling stock. The ex-Virgin Mk 3s are a far better product than the tired Mk 2s they replaced, although they have their weaknesses. I use a Db meter to test noise levels, and watch the reading shoot all over the place.

All old coaches with droplight windows and unsealed gangways suffer from this, as external noise and air pressures penetrate the train. I’m not a fan of the fixed armrest IC70 seats either, and I find the lack of power sockets a nuisance.

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