Moving on, I catch a comfortable and quiet Class 450 to Woking, where I change for the ‘Pompey’ line. The station remains much the same as I remember it a decade ago, although the old Yew Tree cafe is now a more upmarket Starbucks.
I am surprised to find a catering service on the train, although there is nearly a nasty accident when the trolley ploughs into the arm of the seat in front, nearly sending a wave of coffee over my camera, which is perched on the seat’s back table. This is ironic - ten years ago I commented on nearly wearing coffee owing to the Mk 1 EMU’s ride quality.
At Guildford we are held at for a few minutes, but the Guard uses the PA to apologise and explain this is due to signal failure, and we leave five and a quarter minutes late.
At Petersfield a pair of roving Revenue Protection Inspectors join, and I listen in as they swap stories of fare dodgers’ dodges!
The late running worries me, because I am hoping to catch the Isle of Wight ferry. Fortunately, I make it with minutes to spare and enjoy a sunny trip across the Solent, before disembarking at Ryde pier for a trip on a timewarp railway running 75-year-old ex-London Transport Tube trains!
Despite the age of the stock, the IoW Railway has moved forward, and as we bounce and rattle our way from Ryde to Shanklin I can see improvements. Life has returned to many of the stations. There are new cafes and shops, artwork and gardens. On my return I stop off at Brading station, which has re-opened as a heritage centre. The Island Line is a credit to the energy of the community and the local Community Rail Partnership Officer, Bobby Lock.
I wish I could stay longer, but time is of the essence. Soon I am back on the mainland, heading for Gatwick on Southern’s 1515 Portsmouth-Gatwick Airport formed of a clean, well-presented Electrostar.
There is a prompt ticket check, although the guard doesn’t have much to do because the train is quiet, with only eight passengers in my car. Well, quiet apart from a teenager who chatters 19 to the dozen to his female companion. Time to reach for the iPod!
The journey via the picturesque Arun Valley is gorgeous. The route is the epitome of Englishness, with picture postcard views and properties straight from the pages of Homes & Gardens magazine. The only change is that the line has been resignalled, all the distinctive Southern semaphore has gone, and the signal boxes have been closed. It’s a necessary progress, but the line has lost some of its charm.
At Horsham we join onto the rear of another train. The move is accomplished with little fuss, and takes mere minutes.
At Three Bridges (where a new Thameslink depot is taking shape) we join the Brighton Main Line. I change trains at Gatwick
Airport and catch the 1705 Gatwick Airport-London Victoria, worked by two ex-South West Trains Class 442s.
Compared with a decade ago, this really is a retrograde step. The ‘442s’ are inferior to the bespoke Class 460s they have replaced - their narrow doorways are far too restrictive for airline passengers laden with luggage. That said, the train is quiet and the journey comfortable.
Back in London, I attempt to re-create my 2004 trip on the South London metro services. It’s impossible to repeat the original itinerary, as platform extensions at Battersea Park have closed the junction used by the Victoria-London Bridge via Denmark Hill service. So I retrace my steps to Clapham Junction and catch an Overground service out to Peckham Rye.
The change is amazing compared with 2004. Then the lineside was thick with graffiti, and the state of the former Connex stock was appalling. The train windows of the Class 456s working the route used to be so badly etched with graffiti it was almost impossible to see out of them.
Now Connex is history, window etching has become a minor problem, and even the graffiti is far less in evidence than it used to be. The only thing that is worse is the buddleia, which threatens to overwhelm some viaducts along the line, turning them into hanging gardens and causing untold damage. That aside, there’s no doubt of the improvements to be seen.
I stay in Peckham long enough to change trains, and head back to Clapham to end the day with friends.
In RAIL 758, Paul heads west to Wales and north to Scotland.
- This feature was published in RAIL 757 on 17 September 2014