(james benedict brown) on the road

Sunbathing at Ely station

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 12 May, 2008

The inverse law of blogging content is in effect again. The more that happens, the less that I write. I’m just a few weeks away from finishing my taught postgraduate degree, so although my eyes, ears and mind are processing more than usual, I’m just not able to spend the time ruminating on it here.

A few weeks ago I headed home to Norfolk for one last weekend before the final push. A certain octogenarian was celebrating a birthday, so much eating, drinking and celebrating took priority over technical reports and design submissions.

This will probably have been my last trip home from Sheffield to Norfolk. On and off for the last seven years, I’ve traveled between the city and the countryside: two beautiful parts of England that I have grown to call home in different senses. The tranquil countryside of East Anglia, a low-lying rural landscape of fields and forests, and the confused modern city of Sheffield, an industrial powerhouse turned into an uneasy regenerated metropolis.

I traveled between my two ‘homes’ in a number of ways. I’ve driven a selection of cars (my crumbly Saab, two Nissans, a handful of Fords and the odd Vauxhall panel van) and I’ve even taken the god-awful National Express (six and a half hours, including fourty-five minutes in Peterborough and an hour in Leicester). By car the journey takes about two and a half hours, dropping south a few miles on the M1, before crossing east to the A1M and then south again, before another turn east and across the fens. By bus it’s decidedly less direct, and infinitely less comfortable. But my most frequent steed on this cross-country journey has been the ambling shed known as the Liverpool – Norwich train.

If you forgive me for blogging just one last time about this hideous service, I promise not to complain ever again. For seven years I have endured this shameful service. As a child traveling by train through Ely station (approximately halfway between by childhood homes of Cambridge and west Norfolk) I might have glimpsed a shabby but generous rake of first and second class carriages being hauled by a full size locomotive. Intercity passenger service between East Anglia and Scotland and the north-west of England was provided by old but reliable full service passenger trains. Then in the eighties came the Sprinter – the apparent “saviour” of cross-country passenger transport. The Sprinter was a family of self-propelled diesel rail cars, normally operating as single or two carriage trains. No need for a big old locomotive up front; just sling a couple of smaller engines under the coaches and off you go. No first class. No real luggage space to speak of. No buffet. Nowhere to park a bicycle.

I started traveling between Sheffield and Brandon in 2001. The train I took was the Liverpool – Norwich service, an hourly connection between the west and the east, calling at Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and several other major towns along the way. It’s a five hour slog from one side of Britain to the other, three hours for my trip. It could easily feel like double, since the minuscule trains were always dirty and always overcrowded. Intercity passengers carry luggage with them, and with precious little space it’s usually in the aisles or blocking the doors. Impoverish commuters who use shorter segments of the route for their daily travels usually ended up standing.

The first post-privatisation franchisee Central Trains were canned in 2007. I did not shed a tear for them, fans as they were of truncating my routes with unannounced cancellations and even unannounced diversions. On one occasion my Sheffield – Norwich train magically transformed into a Sheffield – Birmingham train at Nottingham station. No announcement was given. I was well on my way in the opposite direction to Leicester before the guard told me.

The problems with Central Trains were considered to be so fundamental that the franchise was dissolved into other neighbouring operators. The Liverpool-Norwich service went – bizarrely – to a new company called East Midlands Trains (EMT). The bad fit of this route with this franchise is only emphasised by the fact that the train is only in the East Midlands for about an hour of its five hour journey. And while I don’t miss Central Trains, the franchise split has not benefited my journey. EMT are chronically short of suitable trains to operate this franchise, and have to borrow a few from a sister company to operate this service. Hence some confusion went a train bearing the name South West Trains pulls into Sheffield station.

But it is a three hour journey that has become so familiar, it is now almost subconsciously lodged in my memory. The first hour from Sheffield to Nottingham is through the last rolling hills and dry stone walls of Derbyshire and into the industrial cities of Nottinghamshire. The second hour from Nottingham to Peterborough takes us across the wide open fields of Licolnshire and down the relatively fast east coast mainline. The last hour from Peterborough to Thetford is the most dramatic; upon leaving Peterborough the chatter of passengers in the train begins to recede. Within minutes of leaving one great cathedral city we are following a near-dead straight track for the next – a rapid run across the magnificent Cambridgeshire fens, where the sky suddenly opens up into an arc above us, consistently the deepest blue (whatever the weather) above the blackest soil I’ve seen.

At Ely the astonishing cathedral emerges on the horizon, and the train pulls into the third platform of a regional interchange station. One north-south line connects London and Cambridge (south) with King’s Lynn (north); our east-west line connects Peterborough (west) with Norwich (east); and a solitary branch heads south-east towards Bury St. Edmund’s and Ipswich. The trains shudders to a halt, the driver and guard switch ends, and we chunter off back the way we came in to leave Ely by another line. Scrubland and wetlands appear, and then the deep woods of Thetford Forest envelop the train.

Hour by hour, this three hour journey in a tired and unreliable railcar has become – for better or for worse – my cushion between city and countryside. Three segments of an hour each; three hours to unwind, read, think and watch my country roll by.

I left Norfolk on Monday morning to return to Sheffield, and boarded the Liverpool train bound for Sheffield for what could be the last time. I was already in a thoughtful frame of mind as we approached the turn-around in Ely. The significance of one final train ride to Sheffield was not lost on me.

But at Ely something went wrong. Or to use the words of the train manager, “something exploded” under one of the two railcars. A major component in one of the rattly diesel engines had gone pop, and left a bedraggled heap of debris on the track. With only one working engine, the train didn’t have enough power to drag itself onwards. With such a fragmented privatised railway, there were no back-up trains near-by to help us. We were instructed to step off the train and relax for a while – the next train to Liverpool was due in an hour, and it would have to couple up and drag us the rest of the way.

The orange-suited driver paced the trackbed and reached under the train to remove more debris. Passengers for Peterborough and Scotland were directed to another train. Those of us going to Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool remained on the station, sunning ourselves on one of the first noticeably warm days of spring. Under a bright blue sky I remembered all the times I’ve been delayed at this fenland railway station. At least it was warmer than the last time I had a connection here.