There is nothing like a cab ride to learn about the state of the railway and there are few companions as knowledgeable as Mark Hopwood, the boss of Great Western, to ensure that it is particularly informative. We made the short but fast journey from Paddington to Oxford in a Hitachi train which is a fabulous train but both its introduction and its operation highlight all too well the short-term thinking which has so damaged the railway and will leave a legacy for generations to come.
Let’s look at the good news first. I have been on several cab rides recently and there is no doubt that the Great Western line is in a better state than many other parts of the network, helped, of course by its creator, one Isambard Brunel. But as Hopwood is quick to point out there has been considerable investment, not least the electrification back in the 2010s. There, are too, other less well publicised improvements such as the straightening of the curves through Twyford station which means that there is no need for the train to slow down from its 125 mph cruising speed.
Moreover, the trains are crowded. Paddington station at 10am on a Friday morning is teeming with people, boosted slightly by the presence of lots of very posh people mainly in bright red striped jackets heading off for the Henley Regatta but Mark Hopwood assures me that such crowding is becoming, once again, a regular feature of the railways. As has been widely noted but not really explained, the reduction in commuting has been more than matched by an increase in leisure travel.
And love em, or hate em, the Hitachi trains are magnificent. The ride is so smooth and the acceleration so pronounced that we hardly notice the speed at which we are travelling, a potential hazard for new drivers of these trains who are more used to shake and rattle of older trains. The transfer from electric to diesel traction is so smooth that as Hopwood says, ‘all the passengers on their devices or looking out of the window will not have noticed the change’.
But, in fact, that is part of the bad news. The fact that this change of traction is required is a demonstration of the total lack of coherent thinking about the railway. As we accelerate after leaving Didcot, we pass a lot of masts that have been erected for wires that have not yet materialised – and probably won’t for years to come. That’s because half way through the Great Western Electrification project, ministers suddenly got cold feet as the cost escalated. The original scheme would have reached Oxford where a group of sidings was earmarked for overnight storage but now cannot be used because electrification stopped at Didcot. And stopped so suddenly that as we speed away from Didcot station, a group of unused and useless over-engineered masts appear on the side of the tracks, appearing like a relic of some dystopian disaster rather than being a permanent reminder of political dithering and short termism In fact, the fast train to Oxford on which we are travelling should have been operated by an electric train but instead is a bi-mode an electric train carrying a diesel engine in what is clearly an unsatisfactory compromise.
Moreover, as Hopwood point outs, when the decision to postpone the electrification, the implications for train operations were not considered. Therefore, the slower service between London and Oxford has been split into two with an electric train from London terminating at Didcot where passengers have to transfer to a shuttle stopping service to the university town. If the line had been electrified, this would not have been necessary. This was a particularly short-sighted decision given that rail services to and from Oxford are in increasing demand. The city has benefitted already from the new connection with Marylebone, and now another new platform, on the other side of the platform, will allow an increase in services heading north which will be particularly useful for the large number of freight trains going through the station.
On our return from Oxford, we stop at Appleford, just four miles short of Didcot. No one gets on or off and the station is served about every two hours during the day. I ask Hopwood about it and he says: ‘There was a lot of local pressure to retain an hourly service and we did for a while, but hardly anyone used it, so we have reduced the number of trains stopping there. There are only a few houses there, and no parking and so it was hardly surprising there was little footfall’. It’s an interesting point as a quick check on the Office of Road and Rail website shows that even before Covid there were barely 20 users per day and this has dropped since. I’m sure the (few) local residents will object but it may well be that providing a service for such a little used station almost adjacent to the very well-served Didcot Parkway which has plenty of car parking space is not an efficient use of resource.
That is by no means to suggest Hopwood is uninterested in providing a comprehensive service that includes residents of small towns and villages without a railway station. Quite the opposite. The three main towns without a station – Wallingford, Wantage and Abingdon – are all well served by buses thanks to the strong relationship Hopwood has forged with the bus operators. Indeed, he has worked very hard with local authorities to improve links between bus and train, the old ‘integrated transport’ concept which has rather fallen out of favour.
Indeed, Great Western even has a staff member whose job consists entirely of working out ways to improve integration with other transport modes. Hopwood is keen to show me the bus stations outside both Oxford and Didcot stations which have been greatly improved in recent years, and he has worked tirelessly with local bus companies to improve integration. At Didcot, the bus bays have been brought nearer the station, replacing an old taxi rank, and services greatly expanded. He cites the way that the local authority insisted that developers in the area subsidised three years of bus operations to the station as a way of inculcating a public transport mindset. Crucially, after the three year inaugural period, the services have continued to operate on a commercial basis, at times even with increased frequency.
In Devon, too, Great Western has worked well with the local council thanks largely to councillor
Andrea Davis, the Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, Development and Waste who despite not having the word ‘transport’ in her title has done an enormous amount of work to provide better public transport in the area, with a great emphasis on using local train services. Hopwood says that in other, unnamed, areas, there is no such enthusiasm and he reckons that there should be a national policy to create such important links, rather than relying on local individuals.
There was on last thing to show me before we parted company, and that was the control room at Reading. While many in the industry moan about the lack of investment or the shortcomings of their political masters, the transformation of Reading station and the track layout, which included the creation of an overpass preventing freight trains heading to and from the ports holding up passenger services has transformed Great Western’s services. Remember previously every train heading away from London had to stop at Platform 4, causing constant delays but now 10 minutes spent in the control room showed how smoothly services can no run – and also highlighted how many freight trains still go through the station. It is worth remembering at this time of crisis that some things have got better.
Rail services booming but…
I am always prepared to admit I have been wrong, especially as my alter ego Mystic Wolmar is so useless, and therefore I must confess that I have been surprised at the busy-ness of the railways in the post covid world. In particular, underestimated the speed with which they would recover from the pandemic, as, with remarkably little marketing and virtually no changes in fares policy, passengers are coming back to the railways in droves – and new ones are also letting the train take the strain.
Essentially, on a good day, usage is at least 90 per cent, and often 100 per cent of post Covid levels and the numbers seem ever increasing, despite the increase in people working from home. Indeed, Howard Smith, who runs the Elizabeth Line, reckons the allure of the office is increasing. In an interview for my podcast, Calling All Stations, he told me that Mondays were now becoming busier than in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, but ‘Fridays still have fewer commuters but there is a huge increase in leisure travellers later in the day, as people come into London for entertainment and restaurants’. The new emphasis on leisure is something that the railways must accommodate but while the odd bit of trackwork has been shifted from weekend to weekdays, there is still a mindset that commuting is still the most important source of revenue and usage. This must now change.