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Entries about train travel

The Secret Trainspotter... Riding London's Old and New Rail

Riding from London Victoria to London Bridge on the last day of service (Dec 8), and then the first day of service on the new Clapham Junction to Surrey Quays, Highbury and Islington and right round to Clapham Junction on the first day of service (Dec 9)

sunny 8 °C

I am going to apologise in advance for this entry, and provide a warning. This is an entry about two train rides from and to places within London, in one case from one point in London right around back to the same place. You might find it dull, but I find riding around on trains endlessly fascinating. It's in my heritage. Anyway, if you find train rides dull, I would suggest you stop reading now.

Still here? All right, you've been warned. You've only yourself to blame now.

I wrote recently about a trip on the parliamentary train from Clapham High Street to Kensington Olympia, and how the opening of a new train service from Clapham Junction to Surrey Quays was allowing this service to close. The new Overground service isn't just closing this (mostly useless) service, but also closing a twice-an-hour service from London Victoria to London Bridge. The Victoria to London Bridge service was closing on December 8th, and the new Overground Clapham Junction to Surrey Quays opens December 9th, so I decided to ride them both.


London Victoria to London Bridge, December 8th, 2012

The Inner South London Line was a twice hourly service running between London Victoria and London Bridge stations in central London, servicing Wandsworth and Southwark with a horseshoe service to these two main terminal stations in London.

I headed from Clapham Junction to Victoria to catch the 13:11 departure from Victoria. The train was due to call at Battersea Park, Wandsworth Road, Clapham High Street, Denmark Hill, Peckham Rye, Queens Road Peckham, South Bermondsey and finally terminating at London Bridge.


London Victoria has this great logo on the floor telling you to watch what you are doing with your roller bag. Don't be a trolley wally, it says.

I boarded the service, which is usually a two car train but Southern Rail had put on 4 car trains for the day. There were a few train spotters taking photos (much as I was), and a few people with placards about the service, but there was also a few people who were just taking the train to get where they wanted to go, looking a little bemused at those of us with cameras and placards.

I inadvertently ended up on the same train as the Southwark Rail Users group (SRUG), who were riding the trip a couple time around. They had signs and were taking pictures, and talking to people on the train. The woman I talked to said they weren't protesting, just communicating, though the information they were handing out was titled "South London's Loss".

They were handing out maps they felt better represented the new layout of the train services than the TFL tube maps, which they said don't show how Southwark is connected to central London. I didn't bother pointing out that the TFL tube map doesn't show any rail service other than the Overground, and that most of the new stops weren't on the old London maps.


Other than the chat with the SRUG people, the train journey was short and uneventful.

Battersea Power Station from the rail bridge

Battersea Power Station from the rail bridge

Peckham Rye station, last time that this Southern train upholstery could be seen here?

Peckham Rye station, last time that this Southern train upholstery could be seen here?

Between Queens Road and South Bermondsey, A view of the Shard

Between Queens Road and South Bermondsey, A view of the Shard

We arrive at London Bridge, and off I get. The station is undergoing a number of improvements, which is one of the reasons that this South London Line service is being discontinued, as platforms in London Bridge station are being closed until 2018. I wander around lost for a few minutes before I find the way to the Underground, passing in the shadow of The Shard, Europe's tallest building.

Arrival at London Bridge, walking out to see Europe's tallest building - The Shard

Arrival at London Bridge, walking out to see Europe's tallest building - The Shard

Off I went on the Jubilee line to do some Christmas shopping... For myself... I bought a laptop... at Harrod's. That really happened.

Clapham Junction to Highbury & Islington to Clapham Junction, The Orbital Overground, December 9th, 2012

The sun rose on Sunday, and "all change, please," when the old services stop and the new service begins.

The London Overground is a train service run by Transport for London, the local government body responsible for transportation in the Greater London area. In the past few years, TFL has taken on many train services, aiming to create an orbital railway running around central London. The last piece was to put together a link along the southern edge of the city, and a new service from Clapham Junction to Surrey Quays completes the link.



I caught the train from Clapham Junction, catching the 11:52 headed towards Highbury and Islington. There were a few "train enthusiasts" on the train (you could tell by the literature printed off and the cameras), but there was mostly regular rail users, off on whatever commute they were on for the day.


We left Clapham Junction, and slowly made our way along, eventually passing underneath the main rail track and coming up on the previously unused portion of track heading to Wandsworth Road.


Wandsworth Road and Clapham High Street station, previously serviced by Southern Rail but now only serviced by the Overground, have been rebranded as London Overground stations, with the orange roundel. We pulled into the station, and I noticed a young boy (probably around 12) filming the train as it came in from the north end of the platform. A few minutes later, when we pulled out, the boy had moved down to the south end of the platform to film us pulling out.


Soon enough the train pulled into Denmark Hill, where I jumped off for a quick rest on my round-London journey.


I had heard that there was a decent pub in the Denmark Hill rail station building called the Phoenix. I popped in to the pub, and found an absolutely lovely pub with a massive beautiful clock. I got myself a pint of London Pride ale (decent choice for a train spotter).


Pint done, and reinforced, I headed back to the station to catch the train and continued my round the city journey.


Boarding the train at Denmark Hill, I found a much busier train than the last, with every seat taken, and people having to stand. Pretty impressive for the first day of service.

We pulled out from Denmark Hill and off to Peckham Rye. As we pulled into Peckham Rye, I noticed the same young lad who had filmed us coming into Wandsworth Road filming our train coming in. Arrival filmed, he jumped on the train and as the train ran from Peckham Rye to Queens Road Peckham, he worked his way through the open train to the front of the train, his mother following behind him.


At Queens Road, the lad jumped off, positioned himself on the platform, and filmed us leaving the station. His mother accompanying him must be a patient woman.

I was so busy watching the young boy filming, I missed the arrival of the woman who sat across from me. She soon got my attention, though, as she spent the entire time on the train sobbing to herself silently. Like a good Brit, I looked away in embarrassment. I seem to attract this kind of behaviour, first noticing crying on the Heathrow Connect in August 2009 and then recently on a flight in September where the woman beside me was crying.

We turned north, going over the newest bit of the rail network (actually a reconstructed old bit of the rail network) that connects us onto the line to Surrey Quays. We now had stopped being on the new bit, and were travelling now up the east side of London. We travelled down underground, and eventually under the Thames river in the Thames_Tunnel, the first tunnel built under the river. It was built in the mid-1800s as a pedestrian tunnel. In 1865 it was converted to a rail tunnnel, and other than a few years closure here and there, has been serving London by rail since that time.

We pull up out the tunnels and into Shoreditch, where we get some excellent views of the City of London and the area surrounding Liverpool Street station.

The woman left the train, still sobbing, at Shoreditch High Street, along with most of the rest of the train. A much emptier train continued along the east of the city, and then turned to the west to start along the Northern stretch of the circle.

We pulled into Highbury & Islington, and I decide to take another break, popping out of the station and to the nearby Famous Cock pub, where I take a quick break for the toilet, and then to replenish my liquids, another pint. I had a pint of Spitfire ale and watched the first 30 minutes of the Manchester derby between Manchester United and Manchester City.


After watching Man U's Wayne Rooney score a soft, rolling goal, I headed back to Highbury and Islington station, and down to the Overground platforms. The next train direct to Clapham Junction (heading west) wasn't for 27 minutes, so I hopped onto a train to Willseden Junction.


The train journey from Highbury & Islington was uneventful, though busy. This section of the line is well established, so not surprising to see it well used.

I snapped this photo during the journey of a TFL advert for the extension to the south. It promises quicker journeys to the clubs in Clapham, Camden and Hoxton. Given that I live in Clapham, and haven't made it out to the clubs there, I doubt that I will be using the train service to get to clubs in North or East London.


The young Japanese girl who was sitting under the sign looked at me somewhat strangely, but otherwise I was the only strangeness on this part of the journey. Mostly it was young people and families off to wherever they where going for the day.

The train terminated at Willseden Junction, and I wait 8 minutes for the next train to Clapham Junction. The train pulls in, and fills up with people. Other than the bit from Clapham Junction to Denmark Hill, and from Shoreditch High Street to Highbury and Islington, the train has been full on a Sunday afternoon. And not just with train spotters and nerds like me, but with people going about their regular Sunday afternoons.


It being Christmas time, and this being a train that stops at Shepherd's Bush station for Westfield Shopping centre, the train was busy with shoppers, either on their way to buy, or at Shebu (what us in-people call Shepherd's Bush) boarding the train with tons of bags.

In amongst that crowd, an older man with large, grey mutton chops also boarded the train. He stood at one end, and listened as the train pulled away from Shepherd's Bush.

The automated train announcement came on. "This is the Overground service to Clapham Junction. The next station is Kensington Olympia," the mechanical, female voice said.

"Olymmmm-Pi-Ahhhh!" the man sung out after the announcement had ended. "Overground... Underground..." he sang, and then stopped singing. The music didn't stop, though, he replaced his voice with a harmonica. Mutton chops played his harmonica until the train pulled into West Brompton, when he pulled his hat down on his head, turned his collars up and left the train. I had expected him to walk through the train asking for change, but he didn't. Simply played his music, and left.

A few minutes later, we pulled into platform 1 at Clapham Junction, and I had completed the circle. From Clapham Junction to Clapham Junction, a journey of 0 net miles.


A final pint of the day to celebrate the circle at Windsor Castle pub in Clapham Junction.


Home again, home again... Completed the circle and back in Clapham Junction. Celebration pint! A secret train spotter success.

Now, where'd I leave my anorak?

Posted by GregW 09:11 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged trains train_travel Comments (0)

Ghost Train: West London Parliamentary Train

A ride on a UK ghost train, soon to be exorcised.

rain 13 °C

I have just turned 42 years old. Now, now, no need for the wailing. It’s not so bad. I find that I don’t wring my hands with worry and anxiousness too much about birthdays now I am in my 40s. In your 20s, your birthday is a cause of celebration. In your 30s, its about reflection and disappointment at the years slipping away with goals unachieved. In your 40s, expectations lifted, you are who you are going to be, likely, so you just roll with it. Or, more likely, you have kids and have to focus on their birthdays.

No kids for me, so just the freedom of not worrying about my birthday.

That is not to say I let the day pass unmarked. No, my hangover this morning is testament to the fact the day was celebrated with beer, gin, tequila and an ill-advised sambuca. The day was marked, and will be remembered. Other than the very last part of the night, which I struggle to remember now.

However, before the drinking... at least the heavy drinking... I fulfilled a bit of my inner-train-geekiness and rode a GHOST TRAIN!

<insert scary noises here>

Okay, it wasn’t actually an apparition of the Flying Scotsman rumbling down the tracks, nor even a train filled with the ghosts of long dead conductors. It was a Parliamentary Train.

A Parliamentary Train, while sounding quite grand - filled with MPs in plush carriages riding on secret railways to a station under the Parliament buildings - is in fact just a regular passenger train. These trains are just not run frequently, nor very well publicised, nor even really sensible.

In the Railway Regulation Act of 1844, the government of the day made it a legal requirement to provide passenger service along every railway line in the country. Not just between two stations, but on every single mile of track. To stop providing service on a train line, a train company and the government need to go through a very lengthy consultation process.

To get around this requirement in a crafty legal way, certain trains are run at very low intervals, just to provide service on a length of track. These trains, sometime running as infrequently as once a week, are called Parliamentary Trains, in reference to the act of Parliament which made these a requirement, though sometimes they are known in general chatter as ghost trains (mostly by the tabloids, who love to claim they are a sign of government waste. Government waste and sponging MPs is the third favourite topic of the tabloid newspapers, right behind how immigrants are ruining everything, and how fat or skinny celebrities are).

In West London, there is one such train. Running once a day in each direction between Kensington Olympia station and Wandsworth Road or Clapham High Street Station, the West London Parliamentary Train is in service to ensure that a passenger train runs over a small section of track on a branch connecting the train line into Victoria Station with the train line into Waterloo with the train line running round the edge of London on the west side. It’s probably no more than a couple 100 feet of otherwise unused(*) track along some of the busiest train lines in the country.

(*) Unused in the sense of no scheduled passenger service. The line itself is well used by freight traffic, charter services and to facilitate the movement of trains between their regular routes and maintenance yards.


So this once a day service runs, 20 minutes from Clapham High Street to Kensington Olympia, even though there are multiple options that could do the same journey (with a change) in 35 minutes. The service is of little use to anyone, unless they happen to be there at the exact time the train is going, and is travelling between the few specific stations that this train services.

Or, you are a train spotter or other rail geek, and want to go on a strange, little ride.

Even though the consultation process is lengthy, it sometimes is determined it is worth doing. For this particular line, because a new service is about to open that will use some (though not all) of the line and therefore the train companies can free up the line. Come December 8th, the service will no longer run.

The opportunity to ride a ghost train, and one that is soon to be discontinued. Well, that was too good for me to pass up.

So, half day of work off for my birthday, I decided to treat myself, and planned for a trip on the 16:11 departure from Clapham High Street station to Kensington (Olympia), calling at Wandsworth Road, Imperial Wharf and West Brompton.

I left my house and headed towards Clapham High Street from my house near Clapham Junction station. I caught the 345 bus towards Peckham, which handily drops me right off in front of Clapham High Street Station.

It was a very rainy and grey London day, wet and dull when I arrived at Clapham High Street station.


I arrived about 5 minutes to four o'clock. I looked at the departure board, and saw the 16:11 to Kensington (Olympia) listed as the 2nd service. The 15:58 to Victoria came and went, and the 16:11 service moved up to 1st on the departures board for platform 2.

I had been told that sometimes these trains don’t appear on the departure board, or are not announced, to try and keep people off them. Whether this is to keep up the pretence of the service not being needed in the event of a consultation, or simply because people could be confused about the destination, I don’t know. Surely if you arrived at Clapham High Street Station, which other than this one service only has trains going to Victoria Station, you could accidentally jump on this train without realising it isn’t going where you are expecting. However, this one seemed well advertised.


I was meeting a couple of people at the station who were interested in riding the train, though I had only exchanged emails with them, and so we were meeting sight unseen. Having bent over to grab the above picture, I heard behind me a voice say, "you must be Greg." I turned around to see one of the people I was meeting coming up the stairs to the platform.

"Indeed I am," I said. He explained that he guessed that someone taking a photo of a train schedule wasn't your average commuter. The third in our party arrived shortly, and we waited patiently for our train to roll in.

Having heard that the doors only open very briefly on these trains, we made sure we were close to one of the doors once the train came to a stop, and I quickly hit the "door open" button. Luckily we had no trouble getting on, and were joined by a few other people who looked to be commuters rather than people there to experience a soon to be discontinued parliamentary train journey.

I commute from Clapham Junction into Victoria every working day, so the train itself was pretty familiar - a standard Southern commuter train.


Wandsworth Road station is where we pulled into next for a brief stop. The doors go in and out of service very quickly on these trains, only being active for about 30 seconds. A few people jumped on at Wandsworth Road station, but the train remained for the most part empty.

Next up was the unusual bit, where the train departed from the main line up towards Battersea Park and Victoria, and instead took the cord off over Factory Junction and Latchmere Junction No. 1.

Quite a grey day, which meant there wasn't great views of much. However, living in the area, I was pretty sure there isn't much of a view we were missing.


There was a short delay as we sat on the track, part of a delay built into the schedule. We soon enough rolled on, passing not far from my house, and joining the line up towards Chelsea.

We crossed over a swollen-looking Thames, and pulled into Imperial Wharf. This station was busier than either Clapham High Street or Wandsworth Road, and we had a few people getting on, then upon hearing the announcement that the train was only going as far as Olympia, about half of them quickly jumped back off again.

The train passed by Chelsea's football grounds, quickly called at West Brompton and passed by the soon to be redeveloped Earl's Court before continuing to its final stop, Kensington (Olympia).


It was a short trip, but interesting. For me, beside for soothing the inner-train-geek in me, it provided a few other interesting points. First, we past close by my current house in Battersea, and ended up departing at Kensington Olympia, about a 5 minute walk from where I previously lived in London. Secondly, living near Clapham Junction, I often take the London Overground Service. Much of the service we took (From Latchmere junction through to Imperial Wharf to Kensington Olympia) is covered by the existing Overground service from Clapham Junction to Willesden Junction. And most of the part that isn't covered by the existing Overground service (Clapham High Street to Wandsworth Road and then to Factory Junction) will soon be covered by the new southern loop of the Overground. This new service starts in December, and is one of the prime factors in closing this route. It is, in essence, a preview for me of additional transport options coming to my part of town. (In fact, we saw an Overground train in trials on this route while waiting at Clapham High Street station).

After the journey, our party decided to have a celebratory drink (part of the many layers of booze that brought on my aforementioned hangover), and as a former local, I suggested a local pub. Jumping ahead, turns out the pub had turned into an Italian restaurant, and while they had beer on tap, no real ale, which would have seemed more fitting for a day of train spotting. Can’t say we were typical train spotters, though, as none of us had beards nor were wearing an anorak. But that is jumping ahead in the story, we were still at the station.

We watched for a moment as confused train patrons thought about boarding the train, now going out of service, but were turned away by the announcements from the staff. Umbrellas up, we headed off into the rainy London afternoon towards the pub. I took one last look back at the train, now pulling away, out of service and off to the yard, and watched as it disappeared into the light rain down the line.

Ghost train, disappearing slowly into the mist.


Posted by GregW 10:24 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged trains train_travel Comments (0)

Definition for the Morning Commute: Lumping

Gregwtravels creates a new word to define a part of his morning commute

sunny 14 °C

I moved down to South London a few months back, now living in Battersea. As part of my new life south of Thames, I no longer commute into work using the tube. I am now going "overground."


Overground is how Londoners describe the commuter trains. The trains come in from all directions - north, east and west - but are most prevalent in the south. This is because there are few tube lines south of River, so the trains act as us Southerners rapid transit solution.

My local station is Clapham Junction station. Clapham Junction is "Europe's busiest train station" by the number of trains which pass through it. There are 2,000 trains a day which pass through the station. Clapham Junction is on the mainlines running into Victoria and Waterloo stations, and away from London heading to the southwest and south.

During the busiest hour there are 180 trains per hour passing through Clapham Junction. 117 of those trains stop at the station.


The good news is that means I never have to wait long for a train heading to Waterloo, near where I work. There is usually a train every two minutes during the rush hour.

The bad news is that as in addition to serving the local community, Clapham Junction is also one of the busiest transfer points on the rail network, and thus there is always a lot of people waiting for those trains. It is not uncommon for me to have to wait for three or four trains to go by before I can squeeze on one of the trains.

To make it easier for those people waiting to get on the trains, on many of the platforms they have painted lines to indicate where the doors will open. This makes it easy to know where to stand to get on the trains, but does lead to a rather uneven distribution on the platforms, with everyone crowding around the areas where the doors of the trains will be.

When the train arrives, those getting off squeeze through a small channel through the crowds, as those waiting to get on the train wait with nervous anticipation to get onto the train. Once the last person is getting off, the crowd surges forward to push on to the very busy trains.

It isn't complete chaos, though. It has a certain order to it. As there is never enough space on the train for everyone, there is a certain amount of jostling for position. At the same time, there is an honour to it - people do look at each other - making eye contact, and allowing those who have been waiting the longest to get on first.


I have never really been sure what to call this process by which people wait for trains at Clapham Junction. It's not a queue, but it does have some order to it.

Last week, it came to me. It is lumping.

Lump (verb) - to wait and board trains in small groups huddled around where the doors are projected to be.

Lump (noun) - the group of people waiting to board a train huddled around where the doors are projected to be.

And thus it is defined.

My daily commute starts by heading to Clapham Junction and lumping to get on a train.

Posted by GregW 14:00 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged transportation train_travel Comments (0)

From Portugal to Spain - Notes from the Rails

Taking the train from Portugal to Spain, and various items along the way.

sunny 15 °C
View Iberia '09 on GregW's travel map.

And that was it, after three days, my time in Portugal was over. A short trip to the country, but I'll have to come back. I never got to try the salt cod or have a glass of Port, so there is more to do in Portugal before my time on this earth is up.

I heard a lot of people speaking Portuguese during my time in Portugal. This is to be expected, of course. I don't think I've ever really heard Portuguese before. More correctly, I have probably heard people speaking Portuguese before, but it has never really registered. I've done lay-overs in Sao Paulo, where no doubt I heard numerous announcements in Portuguese, and I have friends with Portuguese background, so I may have heard it spoken by their parents and such. However, I've never really listened to it before.

What amazed me is that Portuguese sounded NOTHING like what I would have expected. Having seen it written, I expected it to sound like Spanish. It doesn't. Portuguese sounded to me liked Dutch people speaking alternating words in Russian and Spanish. Lots of harsh Russian sounds said with the slurred "sch" sound that Dutch people use, along with flowery Spanish sounding words. Very strange.

My time ended with a last glance at the International Fair grounds where Lisbon held Expo 1998. All those flags lined up along the basin, alphabetically arranged by Country.


I was excited to get down to the Cs, where I looked up the tall flag pole dedicated to Canada.


No flag! The only country where there wasn't a flag! I was crushed. However, the wind was very strong, and most of the flags were in tatters. I assume it wasn't an intentional slight, but rather more likely that the wind took away the Maple Leaf over the sea.

A couple workers were slowly working their way down the flags, taking down the tattered and faded flags and replacing them with new versions, so no doubt Canada's flag is flying high again. I just wonder how often they have to replace those flags, they way they whipped on those high, windy flag poles.

I left Portugal on the train, from Gare do Oriente (the Station of the West, literally). Oriente is one of the main transport hubs in Lisbon. It was designed by Santiago Calatrava for Expo '98, and sits right beside the grounds of the former world Expo. It is a very modern station, with lots of light and glass and swoopy curves inside, and an impressive glass platform roof (the term train shed seems inadequate here) like a medieval cathedral made of light.


I had left my luggage in the lockers in the basement (floor -2 if you are looking for them) as I wondered around the grounds of the International Fair and went to see the Vasco Da Gama Tower (covered in a previous entry). Before claiming it, I popped into the toilets on the ground floor.


Now, Oriente is a very busy commuter station. It handles 75 million passengers a year, and I was there at four in the afternoon on a weekday. Not quite rush hour yet, but still pretty busy. Therefore, I was amazed at what happened next.

I was in the toilet, standing at a urinal and doing what men do at urinals - taking care of business and staring straight ahead at the patch of wall directly in front of me. Out of my peripheral vision, though, I noticed the guy a couple urinals to my right was looking over at me. I took a quick glance over at him, and saw that he was involved in ... ummm... pleasuring himself. Right there, in the middle of a busy toilet in a busy train station in broad daylight (well, we were two stories underground - but it was broad daylight up there).

Upon me looking at him, he caught my eye and looked at me in a way to suggest that while he was having a good time, he would not be against a duet. I blushed and went back to staring at the wall ahead of me, trying to will myself to finish my biological functions as quickly as possible.

On leaving, the man was still there, still at full attention. He had now turned his attention to a man a few urinals away on his right, who was also trying his best to ignore him. As I washed my hands, the man who had been engaged in self-satisfaction zipped up and walked out of the toilet, obviously unable to attract the attention he wanted.

I finished washing and drying my hands, and I walked out of the toilet to see the self-lover standing by the door. As I exited, a commuter in a suit walked in the toilet, obviously in a hurry to quickly take a pee before grabbing his train. The stroker waited until the commuter had entered the toilet, and then followed him in.

Bold. I guess when one is dogging in a commuter train station, you might as well be bold.

The train I jumped on was the long distance train to Hendaye, known as the Sud-Express. The Sud-Express used to be a two-night sleeper train between Paris and Lisbon, but with the creation of the high-speed LGV Atlantique line, the train no longer goes direct to Paris. Instead, you get high-speed TGV to Hendaye, and then a slower train between Hendaye and Lisbon.

I wasn't going as far as Hendaye, just as far as Salamanca in Spain. It was still a 6 hour journey, though. When I got on the train, I was impressed to see that the seats were those old-fashioned six-seater compartments with a door and curtains for the windows, like in movies staring Clark Gable.

I settled in with the iPod on shuffle and started to read a book that my flat-mate had given me for my birthday - Kate Atkinson's "When Will There Be Good News?" It is a very good read. My only complaint is that books that involve train crashes with massive loss of life on page 149 should come with a warning of such, in the event that you don't want to be reading about train crashes whilest rumbling across the dark Portuguese countryside in a rickety, old train.

The train arrived in Salamanca at 2 minutes past midnight. The train station looked quite nice, but was deserted at that hour and all the shops were closed.


From the train station, I had about a 15 minute walk to my hotel. I pulled out my printed Google map and headed along the route towards the centre of town.

One of the things I noticed when I was in Lisbon was that most of the windows have shutters on them, and this continued to be the fashion in Salamanca and later Madrid. Big, metal things that usually roll down on the outside of the window. They reminded me of the big, metal roll doors that shops often have on the front of them when they close up at night. I wasn't sure why they were there. If it was protection from burglars or rock-throwing kids, why did they even have them up on the top storeys of 15 storey apartment blocks?

In Lisbon it was just an idle curiosity. In Salamanca, walking along the deserted streets past midnight and seeing every window protected by a metal shutter and walls covered with graffiti, and you start to wonder if perhaps there is something you don't know about the neighbourhood you are walking through. Should I have body-armour or an armed escort for protection?


Of course, it turns out to be nothing so sinister. I asked a friend who lived in Madrid, who said it was to block the sun. Most folks don't have curtains, and instead have shutters. In the hot summer, they close up the house during the day to keep the sun out, then open the shutters and windows at night to let in the cool breezes. Because I was there during chilly November, people weren't throwing open the windows at night.

I walked along the same route a few different times while in Salamanca, and even the sinister graffiti from that first night was not what it seemed. Rather than gang-tags, it was a quite well done mural of Alice in Wonderland.


After a 15 minute walk, I arrived at my hotel, all body parts still intact. You know you are getting into late at your hotel when you walk into the lobby and they greet you by name, even though you’ve never been there before.

"Hello Mr. Wesson. Welcome to Salamanca."

Posted by GregW 12:00 Archived in Spain Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

Everybody Hates Public Transit!

Not really, of course, but everyone who takes sure does like to complain about it.

semi-overcast 20 °C

The email usually arrives mid-week, bringing the bad news for the weekend. The weekly Transport for London tube closures for the upcoming weekend.


When last Wednesday's email arrived, I realized it looked like it was going to be a bad weekend for getting around on the Isle of Dogs. The Docklands Light Rail (DLR) was going to be shut down all weekend. The Jubilee line, the only London underground route serving the area wasn't running eastbound from North Greenwich towards Stratford.

Bad news a day later when the BBC reported that two of the unions who represent bus drivers in London were going to be striking from Friday night through to Sunday morning, affecting 3 of the 5 bus routes that run close to my house, impacting services even more.


"Gonna be damn hard to get around this weekend," I said to one of my flatmates, giving him a rundown on the weekend's closure.

"Ah, that's going to make it bloody difficult to get to my golf game on Sunday," he said, ending with what has become a bit of a mantra for anyone living here. "Goddamn TFL!"

TFL, short for Transport of London, is the city agency responsible for all the transportation in London. If you move anywhere in London, whether it be by bicycle lanes, roads or rails, and whether the vehicle carrying you is a car, bike, taxi, bus, tube or train, TFL most likely has a big hand in making your ride what it is. When you pay your congestion charge, tap your Oyster card when getting on the train or watch the taxi metre count up, it's the TFL that set your rates.

Because of this control, they make a pretty easy punching bag for anyone trying to get around in London.

To be sure, there is a lot to complain about.

Firstly, the tube trains are incredibly hot. I come from a city with air conditioned subways, and so arriving in London in the height of summer and riding in the hot trains in the stiflingly still air of the deep tunnels, drenched in sweat and crushed against your fellow travellers was a bit of a surprise to me, and I soon found myself wishing for a cool train and a seat.

If that doesn't get your blood boiling, then no doubt the constant shut downs and delays will probably get you. Every weekend since I have arrived a number of lines, especially the Victoria, Jubilee and DLR have been partially or fully shut down. Beyond that, every day seems to find at least one line suffering "severe delays" due to signalling problems, which is especially distressing during rush hour, when hundreds of thousands of people are trying to get around using the underground, overground and national rail running through the city.

National Rail, which is in fact a collection of a number of companies running franchises serving the suburban commuter and intercity trains, has it's own problems, from stations needing to be completely rebuilt to track works shutting down lines to some destinations completely at times.

Having only been here a short time though, and coming from Toronto, I have a different perspective than the long time Londoners. Sure, you'll find me cursing TFL from time to time, like on Saturday when I had to backtrack 20 minutes upon learning that a bridge crossing the Millwall Dock was closed for construction on a DLR station, or this morning when I sat for 10 minutes outside of Bank station waiting for the DLR train to pull in, backed up due to the omnipresent "signalling problems."


Despite my curses these past few days, I come from a city with four subway lines covering 68 kilometres of track. London, by contrast, has 400 kilometres of track.

Toronto's subways and buses are run by the TTC. Commuter rail in Toronto is run by GO Transit, and intercity trains by Via Rail. There is no integration between these three services, in either fares or scheduling, nor is there any integration between Toronto's transit and it's neighbouring cities.

London, on the other hand, is well integrated. Sure, it's expensive and you often have to pay additional charges when transferring between modes of transit (i.e. bus -> tube, tube -> DLR, tube -> train), but you can all do it with one card - the Oyster card, and the schedules seem to match up pretty well.

The biggest difference between Toronto and London though, has to do with what was closing those lines all weekend in London. Construction.

The last subway to be opened in 2002, a 5.5 kilometre stub running along the north of the city. Toronto has plans to build more subways and light rail projects, but right now they are just lines on a map, and Toronto's history has seen lots of lines on a map.

London, on the other hand, is growing. While there haven't been any tube extensions since 1999, the DLR expanded most recently in 2005, and an extension is currently under construction, and the London Overground, a commuter rail service run by TFL is expanding rapidly to expand from 4 to 5 rail lines.


Other rail services are getting upgrades as well. Thameslink, the north-south train line through the centre of London, is getting an upgrade to allow longer trains.

The most ambitious scheme, though, is Crossrail. Crossrail is a £16 billion dollar plan to electrify the east-west railway from Maidenhead in the west to Shenfield in the east, and create a tunnel through the centre of London connecting Paddington station in the west end of London to the east-end of London, with one line heading north of the river to Stratford and on to the coast, and another line heading south of the rive to Abbey Wood.

The plan calls for a tunnel running under the centre of London with stations at Paddington, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon, Liverpool Street, Whitechapel and my current home on the Isle of Dogs.


I checked out the Crossrail information session today at Liverpool street station and picked up some literature on the project.


The Isle of Dogs station is set to be built underwater in the West India Dock, right in the middle of the water in the picture below.


The tunnelled section will be about 22 kilometres long, and will have to be tunnelled through the existing spider web of existing tunnels for trains, tube and cars already under the city.

When complete (projected for 2017), the line will provide up to 24 trains per hour through the centre of the city, and with a link down to Heathrow, provide much better transit to London's main airport from the east-end.

If things go according to plan, in less than 10 years London will have a completely new, high frequency service through the centre of town.

Toronto, via it's MoveOntario 2020 plan, is hoping to add similar cross-town services to Toronto by 2020, though with funding disagreements between the city, provincial and federal governments, who knows what will happen.

So to my London friends, don't complain too much. London really does have an excellent public transit system, and with constant upgrades and extensions going on, it is only getting better. When things get bad, try and grin and bear it. It could be a lot worse.

...now if they can just figure out how to put air conditioning on the tube lines.

Posted by GregW 05:52 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

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