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The Modern GWR

Quantity or Quality on our Railways?

GWR, Dining cars, Great Western railway, steam railways

Dining on the GWR in the 1930s was a relaxing contrast to today's fast train food!

News that the passenger target figures in the West Midlands for 2020 were exceeded last year is an astonishing reminder of the current explosion in rail travel.  There can be no doubt that this is a major social change and that rail travel is now back to being the rule rather than the exception.  Combined with the phenomenon of  ’staycation’ where more people are going to Devon, Cornwall and Wales for their holidays instead of abroad, we may be seeing some travel habits returning to where they were in the 1950s.

I remember going to The Lakes by train from Bristol as a child. We sent our luggage on ahead, we caught our train at the old Brunel station platformand headed north behind Barrow Road Jubilee No 45583 Assam. I was so excited by the experience that I not only remember that engine but also seeing the brand new diesel, D1 Scafell Pike at Crewe and a Jinty, 47675 at Torver on the Coniston branch.

Going by train can and should be an event rather than an uncomfortable, stressy chore.  Brunel and the early pioneers conceived it so that it should be, with inspiring vistas opening up for the early (admittedly very rich!) travellers but from them grew a magnificent heritage of rail travel that made trains accessible to everyone.  Lovely local stations served small communities as well as the grand architecture of those in the big cities and I still get an aesthetically pleasing sense of it today, arriving on my bike at Temple Meads and gazing at that wonderful roof, even if that pathetic little 4 car Voyager seems out of place, masquerading as an ‘Express’.  People love our heritage railways too, for the same feel-good reasons: a slower pace, the tubs of flowers in the railway gardens, fires in the grate in waiting rooms, amenable staff.

Of course, the new St Pancras is also wonderful and so are other new places – Berlin Hbf springs to mind – so it can be done if the will is there (I don’t believe it is always just about money) but the sometimes Tokyo style overcrowding that ruins journeys for so many people should surely cause us to consider how we can bring back the feel-good factor to train travel.

The lunacy of our sardine-packed trains means that rail operating companies are perpetually in survival mode, running round like headless chickens as they desperately trying to keep a hopelessly inadequate system running.  There is precious little quality in today’s trains: No space, stressed, controlling staff, no dining cars, no places to stretch out.  It is all about packing them in and getting them there fast.

Will the electrified service between Paddington and Bristol, shaving some (but not that much) time off today’s schedules be something the GWR would feel proud of or will it be battery chicken travel: tight, cheap, nasty and still expensive?

Still, at least it begins and ends in magnificent cathedrals to the golden age of  ’real’  railways!

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