Journey's end

Day 6

Starting the day at Crewe, I had planned to travel in style, with breakfast on the 0733 service to Cardiff on the train many know as Gerald (the daily Welsh Assembly-sponsored service from Holyhead to Cardiff, worked by a Class 67 and several coaches). 

Some 22 travellers are waiting on Platform 12 for ‘Gerald’ to arrive from Chester when (ominously) the departure board time begins to slip back. First 0734, then 0740… 0750… 0758.

For the first time on this trip I have company, with an old friend and lifelong railwayman joining me for the day. He receives confirmation via a phone call that something is wrong… ‘Gerald’ has hit an obstruction outside of Crewe. 

Finally, Gerald limps into the station. Fitters try to repair a damaged cable that has knocked out the central door locking, but to no avail. The train is cancelled, and we miss sampling the train’s famous hospitality. Maybe next time...

A hastily cobbled-together ‘plan B’ sees the pair of us leave Crewe on Virgin’s 0829 Pendolino, non-stop to London Euston. I bag seats in Coach C. This contains the shop and the train manager’s office, so it’s effectively the nerve centre of the train, making it a great place to pick up on gossip and watch people. 

A walk-through of the train shows it is about half-full, with a complete cross-section of the travelling public, including the obligatory stereotypes. Loud business man constantly wittering into his mobile? Check! Students with feet on seats? Check! Elderly couple with plastic lunchboxes? Check. 

I peruse the internal condition of the train. All toilets are working (and odour-free), while the saloons and vestibules are clean and in good order. When you consider the distance the Pendolinos have travelled since introduction, they’re looking good. Rejoining my companion I plug in my laptop and try the WiFi – it’s fine, although a tad slower then I remember. 

Passing Nuneaton, I espy more investment. The new 1km-long North chord that will allow freight to bypass the station is really taking shape. Earthworks appear complete, and track and signalling is being installed. It’s another sign of the importance of intermodal traffic (the fastest-growing sector) to both the railways and the wider economy. 

As we speed south along the West Coast Main Line, passing a procession of freight and local services, my thoughts wander to discussions around High Speed 2, and those who claim the line is expensive and isn’t needed. 

My train is a capacity-eating non-stop service from Crewe, which the HS2 detractors always seem to ignore when they talk about distances. Just imagine how stopping service patterns can be improved when these move to the new high-speed line. 

Flying through Rugby at 125mph, I remember working here on Christmas and Boxing Day, during the infamous blockade. We spent £9 billion to raise speeds by 15mph on a line that will be full by 2024, yet some people claim HS2 is expensive! 

As I ponder both time and miles speed by, and open countryside and cotton-wool clouds give way to housing and industry as London looms. The countryside fights back in places, such as at Watford and Willesden Junctions, where buddleia continues to lead Network Rail a merry dance! 

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