Thursday, 23 July 2009

All-Line Rover, Day 4

After spending 24 out of 36 hours from 7am Tuesday to 7pm Wednesday on ten different trains, I had a welcome evening's break from trains last night. I arranged to stay with a friend of mine in Exmouth (in Devon) on Thursday night, so I could spend Thursday and Friday exploring the south-west of England, starting once more at Paddington.

0854 New Beckenham to Charing Cross, arr 0924
Distance 9.5 miles, walk-up price £2.45
Bakerloo line, Charing Cross to Paddington


If ever you needed to be reminded of the feats of engineering it took to cover the country with railways, take a trip to Penzance. Trust me, you won't regret it.

Of all the places in England, Penzance is almost certainly the one which it takes longest to reach by train from London. (There may be a case for St Ives, I suppose, but it's certainly somewhere in Cornwall - note that I said England, not the UK!) It lies at the end of Brunel's Great Western Railway, over 305 miles from London.

I took an HST all the way from London to Penzance, wandered around for half an hour, and came back on the same train as far as Exeter; since the route, the train and even the staff were the same in both directions I'll describe both together.

1006 London Paddington to Penzance, arr 1511
Distance 305.25 miles, walk-up price £52.80
(Headcode 1C08, operated by First Great Western using an HST with engines 43185+43179)


1600 Penzance to Exeter St David's, arr 1903
Distance: 131.5 miles, walk-up price £10.85
(Headcode 1A94, operated by First Great Western using an HST with engines 43179+43185)

Scenery: 10/10 - Simply stunning views: rolling countryside, then a railway stuck between sandstone cliffs and the sea wall, and lots of fantastic viaducts, as well as Brunel's stunning Saltash bridge.
Punctuality: 8/10 - Perfect timekeeping from London to Plymouth, but rather more slack in Cornwall.
Speed: 9/10 for London-Exeter, but only 7/10 for Exeter-Penzance: yes, it's nice to be able to see the views, but two hours to cover the last 80 miles when you've been averaging 80mph to Plymouth could surely be improved.
Comfort: 7/10 - see yesterday's post about the London-Bristol HST.
Staff: 5/10 - Ticket checks to Plymouth were done efficiently, but there were none in Cornwall; with (I think) no barriers in Cornwall I expect there may well be fare-dodging going on.

We start on the trunk of the Great Western network, from London to Reading. Visually speaking it's not particularly interesting, and I described the London-Bristol route yesterday, so I'll say no more.

At Reading, we take a left turn and plough through the open countryside of Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire to head towards Taunton, avoiding Didcot, Swindon and Bristol, and passing through only small towns such as Newbury, Westbury and Castle Cary. Just north of Taunton we join the original route to the South West, that via Bristol, and head south towards Exeter.

One thing which I did not expect - though, in retrospect, I should have - was that he train was practically full, and four of the five standard class coaches were completely reserved, and the fifth was pretty full anyway. I should have realised that the first week of the English summer holidays would have sent everyone heading for the beach. I made do with a flip-down seat in one of the vestibules as far as Exeter, where, mercifully, the train thinned out, and I found a proper seat.

The first 174 miles to Exeter is covered at great speed, at least for a diesel-powered train: we reach Exeter just two hours and one minute after leaving Paddington (including a three-minute stand at Reading), for an average speed of 86.2mph. It's a pity, really, since the countryside it passes through at up to 125mph is really quite lovely.

But I don't mind, because there are bigger and better views to be had: the line from Exeter to Penzance provides some of the greatest views anywhere on the British railway network.

Teignmouth, about fifteen miles south of Exeter, lies at sea level, as does Exeter. In between, however, are a number of hills, so getting a railway to Teignmouth was always going to be tricky. Brunel managed it by running it, basically, along the shoreline itself: for several miles, the railway is the shoreline. The run along the Dawlish sea wall is really quite spectacular: on one side you've got the sandy shoreline, and on the other side you have sandstone cliffs.

We then turn away from the shoreline, climbing and falling through the rolling hills of Devon to reach Plymouth. Upon departing Plymouth, we pass over one of the greatest bridges in the world: the Saltash Bridge over the River Tamar (the border between Devon and Cornwall), possibly Brunel's finest achievement.

(Sorry the image is slightly crooked, it was taken from a moving train.)

The bridge is unique: it's a suspension bridge, but because there wasn't room on the banks to anchor the cables, the pillars are held up not by suspension cables anchoring them, but by arched beams keeping them apart. It is a masterpiece of engineering, unadorned with any trinkets or finials, and stands as a testament to the achievements of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

We continue to through much of Cornwall on soaring viaducts: it seems that the solution to all those valleys and hills was simply to build viaducts. As but one example, the viaduct at Truro gives stunning views of the cathedral. Finally, we descend to the shore once more for the approach to Penzance.

Penzance, home to the most southerly railway station in the UK (and the most westerly in England), is really quite a small town that ended up as the terminus of one of the country's mainlines because it's a ferry terminal for the Isle of Scilly, putting it in the same class as Holyhead, Fishguard and Stranraer. There are a few nice views to be had, but nothing special. I wandered around before returning on the same train, departing 50 minutes after I arrived.

I consider myself very lucky for being able to travel along the Exeter-Penzance line in sunshine not once but twice. I was able to admire the view on the way into Penzance, and then used that knowledge on the back to get the best photographs of the various views described above.

As I was on a First Great Western HST yesterday, I won't say much about the train itself, other than to correct myself: FGW HSTs do have power sockets at each seat, rather than just at tables; however, they are not in the wall, but rather attached to the bottom of the seat in front, which took me several hours to notice. Still no wireless, though.

I returned as far as Exeter, where I caught a connecting service to Exmouth and my bed for the night.

1927 Exeter St. David's to Exmouth, arr 1957
Distance: 13.25 miles, walk-up price: £2.05

(Headcode 2F53, operated by First Great Western using Pacer 142029)

Scenery: 7/10 - For a short little local service, very nice indeed.
Punctuality: 8/10 - A minute or two late at Exeter was made up to be on time at Exmouth, but only by virtue of being able to skip two request stops.
Speed: 4/10 - Even for a local service the speed was pretty poor and the acceleration was abysmal.
Comfort: 3/10 - The seats were terrible, and the ride was even worse; the visibility was surprisingly good, but it doesn't make up for the seats.
Staff: 5/10 - One ticket check, but he only glanced at my ticket at arms' length.

I had been looking forward to travelling on a Pacer - well, perhaps more accurately, I had been looking forward to having had the experience of travelling on a Pacer; I was *not* looking forward to actually travelling on a Pacer.

"What's a Pacer?", I hear you cry. Pacers are a kind of train introduced by British Rail as a cost-cutting measure in the 1980s, used mainly on local services. They cut costs by using parts from buses. Yes, if you've ever been on a train and thought "this train looks like a bus", that's probably because, in another life, it could have been a bus.

In particular, they used bus seats, bus doors and - worst of all - bus axles, instead of the usual bogies. This means they have very little suspension, and thus give a bone-shaking ride.

I wasn't disappointed: the ride was pretty terrible, the seats were far too low and the doors were annoying. The braking and top speed were about normal for a small train: however, the acceleration was horrible. I have seen tractors accelerate faster with less noise than this Pacer. Admittedly they weren't climbing up the hill from Exeter St. David's to Exeter Central, but nevertheless, it was pretty noisy.

However, the low seats and the large windows had one unexpected side-effect: good visibility, which on the so-called "Avocet Line" to Exmouth was something of a boon: just as the view from the Dawlish sea wall to Exmouth is nice, the same is true in reverse. (Exmouth and Dawlish lie on opposite sides of the mouth of the River Exe.)

Upon arriving in Exmouth, I was unexpectedly given a home-cooked meal and a proper bed for the first time in at least a week, for which my thanks go to Tom Radford and his family.

So, today's statistics:

Total time spent on trains: 9 hours, 8 minutes.
Distance travelled: 459.5 miles.

Walk-up price: £68.15.

Today's walk-up price would have been higher but for the extraordinarily good value off-peak tickets in Devon and Cornwall: Penzance to Exeter, 131.5 miles, for just £10.85, works out at just 8p a mile or so, which is by far the best value I've seen all week. Anyway, tomorrow holds the joys of Exeter-Salisbury and Salisbury-Cardiff; quite what happens after that is anyone's guess!

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