Jammed up against the cab bulkhead, with little opportunity to see the scenery, leaves me watching people instead. Such as the chap opposite, who wears plastic gloves to slowly consume the contents of his lunchbox, while reading a nutrition magazine. The headline screams: “What doctors don’t tell you!”
A gaggle of girls opposite raise the volume in the coach with their chatter, leaving me mulling over the gratuitous use of words ‘like’ and ‘so’ (almost as punctuation) by the young.
A stop at Bicester, where contractors are busy building the new rail connection to Oxford, allows me to change trains and explore an attractive station. It is overshadowed by a massive double-deck car park packed with millions of pounds worth of expensive motors, which scream affluence.
Moving on, I board one of Chiltern’s new Class 172s to Banbury, where I find another station that has expanded and improved.
The footbridge has filled out with a cafe and new ticket barriers, while a new Eastern entrance opens out into another massive, multi-storey car park.
A trip to Oxford on a CrossCountry service follows. Like many of its services it is busy, but the train is clean and the Conductor who checks my ticket is well presented and friendly. The short hop takes mere minutes, and I am soon exploring a station that’s clearly too small and cramped for the role it plays today. However, plans are in hand to replace it, and to add extra platforms to improve capacity on this vital cross-country corridor.
Moving ever closer to London, my next stop is a place unrecognisable from 2004: Reading. I can think of few stations that have undergone such a massive rebuild and transformation. It really is impressive. But the work hasn’t stopped yet - electrification masts are springing up all around, at the town prepares for its new role as Crossrail’s Thames Valley terminus.
As my day is almost over, I take a break to soak up the sunshine (and a pint of real ale) outside the Three Guineas pub, which has taken over the old Great Western Railway station building.
Then it’s onto a fast First Great Western High Speed Train, heading to a bustling Paddington and journey’s end.
Friday morning begins back at Paddington, only this time with a wheeled suitcase in tow, as it is time to leave London on the very same train as ten years ago - the 0915 to Cardiff Central. The train is packed as far as Reading, then empties out to comfortable levels.
We have a travelling chef on board, which tempts me to try the cooked breakfast. And to test the chef’s culinary skills, I order it with scrambled eggs. The result is a pleasant surprise - the food is hot and tasty, although the cardboard box it’s served in lacks the elegance you’d hope for.
The miles speed by as I munch my breakfast. At Wallingford the first electrification posts appear, which draws my attention to the miles of sunken steel piles that are already in place to take them. It’s great to see the progress being made, although the photographer in me can’t help feeling sad at the loss of some great lineside picture spots.
My train is running late, and an unscheduled halt outside Newport makes me anxious, as I have a lot of ground to cover and cannot afford to be delayed. This anxiety proves to be my undoing...
We pull into Cardiff Central next to a Valley Line train. A rapid exit and a mad dash through the subway allow me to catch it with moments to spare. Congratulating myself, I start to take pictures on the train as we climb up the incline to Queen Street. Then I remember my suitcase - and it suddenly dawns on me I have left it on the other train!
Another cross-platform change at Queen Street and a return to Central mean it isn’t only diesel fumes that are turning the air blue! But it is too late - the HST had already left, leaving me no option but to explain my predicament to the station staff.
They have heard it all before, and reassure me that my train will return from the sidings within 20 minutes. Sure enough, when it does, the cleaners have found my case and we are reunited. That’ll teach me to be clever!
Running late now, I finally reach my goal - Pontypridd station. Ten years ago I described the white tiled waiting room, with its mesh windows, as “as welcoming as an abattoir”. Has it changed? You bet!
Already modernised, the station is in the throes of a further £6 million refurbishment that includes a new entrance, forecourt and extra platforms. The dismal waiting room has vanished, replaced with a light, airy wooden-panelled room where the walls are covered with colour photos of Wales. There is also plenty of seating. It is lovely to see, but leaves me with one less contender for the title of Britain’s worst station...
Back at Cardiff Central, there is enough time to have a quick look around, take some pictures, and dive onto the 1330 to Portsmouth Harbour for a trip to Westbury via Bristol Temple Meads. This is a three-car FGW Class 158. Mercifully, for such a warm day and a packed train, the air-conditioning is in fine fettle. At Bristol we swap one mass of passengers for another, before heading off to Bath and Westbury.
At this point in the journey, I have a confession to make. For the past decade I’ve had a secret… I killed a train service!
In 2004, I travelled this route because Wessex Trains had hired in top-and-tail Class 31s and old Mk 2 coaches to run a holiday relief service funded by the Strategic Rail Authority. My report wasn’t very kind. The Mk 2s were shabby and dirty, the trolley service sold mouldy food, and it wasn’t liked by passengers who struggled with its slam doors.
After my article was printed, RAIL’s Philip Haigh rang me and said: “Do you know you’ve killed it? I’ve been chatting to the SRA. They read your article and decided to pull the plug on funding.”
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