Humorous guerilla poster art on the London Underground

There’s nothing quite like commuting on the London Underground to test the patience of most of us. Those who are more creatively-inclined have found an artistic outlet for their stresses. These are shamelessly lifted from Fotoz Up.

All credit to the mischievous travellers who created them – and those that snapped them with a chuckle as they were held at yet another red signal.

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Guerilla train singing

Commuting is a strange activity.

The journey in has become an opportunity to catch up with friends around the world, using the wonders of modern technology (I am still trying get my head around that – sitting on a train to Fenchurch Street and chatting away to a friend thousands of miles away as if they are the other end of the carriage). The journey home is an opportunity to order my thoughts, perhaps write a personal email or two or, if I have a drunken, leering prat next to me, to pretend I am asleep. (Just occasionally, it is a good chance to catch up on sleep!) The tube is often a hassle, people pushing and shoving and I try to lose myself in a Blackberry Sudoku.

Commuting has its own routines and, with iPods, Kindles and iPads becoming a part of the regular commuter armoury, we become very defensive our own little worlds and find intrusions into it intensely irritating. (Is it irrational for me to be extremely wound up at people eating fast food on late evening trains – something which strikes me as an unnecessary intrusion into my nasal cavities!).

I don’t know if it is our traditional British reserve, but we get very suspicious of the stranger who starts talking to us as we journey together to another place.  I’ve had that reaction, too, which is odd, as I’ve always enjoyed public transport abroad precisely because people seem much happier to talk on buses, trams and trains.  Let’s face it, Jonathan Harker would have been in a lot more trouble with The Count if he hadn’t struck up conversation with the Transylvanian locals in his horse-drawn carriage.

Every now and then, though, something happens that makes me smile, shakes my reservations and reminds me how much fun it can be to lose our inhibitions and be a little more human and a little less robotic.

A friend shared this link with me – and I am sharing it with you.

Well done, Adam Street Singers. If they need tenors, perhaps I’ll join…

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Reflections on a Spring morning’s commute

Each morning the C2C trains trundle into London, beginning their journey in Shoeburyness, the end of the line that lies in close proximity to the secrecy-shrouded MOD facilities of the tidal island of Foulness. One hour and ten minutes later they arrive in Fenchurch Street, the oft-forgotten commuter terminal for East Essex that hides between the contradiction of gleaming office blocks and ramshackle reminders of older, darker London such as the East India Arms.

These trains pass through the seaside excitements of Southend, on past the old-now-fashionable fishing town of Leigh and then through the connurbation of Pitsea, which, with the closure of the Motorboat Museum, has almost lost its struggle to retain a sense of its own maritime connections. From Pitsea the journey enters the sprawl of Basildon, the brash young upstart neighbour of both Pitsea and Laindon, both of which were the principal local urban centres prior to the Whitehall social laboratory experiment which was the New Towns Act 1946.

Between Laindon and the sleepiness of West Horndon lies my favourite part of my daily commute: the Bulphan Fen.

Yes, I love the bleak industrial landscape of the detours via the loop line, forced on weary travellers by endless engineering works: the vast and towering complexes of Dagenham; the faded, crumbling decay of Tilbury’s dockside menace; and the empty mystery of Purfleet and its invisible military history. Yes, I love, too, the changing landscape of East London, where clean, proud new build sits between the higgledy-piggledy tangle of scrap-yards, brick-arch businesses and the shells of now-forgotten commercial giants of Britain’s imperial past.

However, for me, nothing touches the vast, rural emptiness of the Bulphan Fen for its capacity to reassure, by reminding me I have truly left the loud metropolitan chaos of the city behind me. Perhaps it is because it is the stretch I have travelled for more years than any other, the daily schoolboy journey to Upminster a daily and extravagant adventure that took me far from the country comfort of Langdon Hills. Whatever the reason, nothing gives me the calm reassurance of the prospect of home as much as this small stretch of a rural England that is quickly vanishing.

In Summer, the setting sun casts long, warm shadows that stretch from field to field, heralding barbecue-weekends, the easy company of family sharing a glass or two under the reaches of the old vine and the wistful strains of Finzi or Vaughn-Williams teasing our souls with the melancholia of English poems and promises.

In Autumn, tendrils of mist snake between the trees and hang low in the fields. They lend the landscape an ethereal shroud worthy of Tolkein that disguises agricultural purpose and hides the pylon sentinels in their silent vigil over this corner of South Essex.

In Winter, icy frosts glitter on earth as hard as iron. These last two years such frosts foretold the blizzards which saw our landscape reborn white and pristine, the dangers of broken road and path buried by snows that harbour their own cruelties and hazards.

And in today’s Spring morning, green fields sparkled with dew under cloudless blue skies and commuters burred quietly with refreshing wonder about the sunshine, its bold appearance vanquishing the greyness of February’s dying season.

I love the Bulphan Fen – and its enduring promise of home.

Fearing franchise change: why it is a mistake to ditch C2C

As a commuter and regular weekend passenger it is very easy to vent about the state of the railways.

Make that rant about the state of the railways.

I have always resented the insidious shift in terminology that, over the years, has seen me redesignated as a customer. I can choose where I buy my fruit and veg. I can’t choose who provides the train I get on. (More on that another time).

My family will have lost count of the number of occasions I have erupted on the phone about the basket-case services provided on the railways at weekends. Why is it that in one of the most prosperous Western countries, in the 21st Century, we still can’t run a comprehensive week and weekend service? It is a pathetic indictment of our national capacity to organise.

Taxi drivers will know my outbursts about the fact that the Germans appear to be able to run (and maintain and repair) a huge national rail network, with far fewer problems than us Brits, and with timetables that link in buses and trams. To the minute. It is astonishing we cannot, bearing in mind our national readiness to computerise and database our entire existence. (Sod the ID card database – lets try and get our buses to meet our trains!)

And on various occasions Em and I have cursed the running of short trains at busy times and the resultant cram into trains which simply aren’t designed for standing.

As I said. It is very easy to rant.

Much harder is crediting rail companies for their successes. And some, with the unlikeliest parent companies, have successes in abundance.

C2C operates the busy commuter line between Shoeburyness and London Fenchurch Street. There is a further loop line from Barking to Pitsea that runs through the old towns along the north flank of the eastern stretches of the Thames. These include the vast industrial wildernesses of Rainham and Dagenham, as well as Tilbury Town and East Tilbury, both of which have extensive maritime histories of civil and military significance, and the towns of Grays and Stanford-le-Hope, each home to a rapidly expanding commuting population.

I use Basildon, Laindon and Pitsea and, on the fastest trains, am a mere 25 minutes from central London.

C2C is owned by Network Rail, the company that ruined the East coast main line. I’ve always been a little schizophrenic on rail privatisation. To me, the railways as a service industry, unlike say HMV, but – as we have privatisation – I have wanted to see healthy and sensible competition to drive up standards. When Grand Central appeared on the scene, challenging National Express (the then principal operator on the East Coast Main Line), Em and I cheered, loving their livery, the uniformed presence of enthusiastic staff and the refurbishment of the well-designed intercities, with seats that line up with windows. Even now, Grand Central are going from strength to strength, introducing refurbished Class 180s and committing to re-engineering their existing High Speed Trains.

The Government were right to strip them of their franchise on that line.

I don’t know much about the East Anglia routes and how they operated. All I know are the anecdotal complaints from friends and colleagues bemoaning the state of their trains and stations. They suggest, unscientifically, that the decision to remove that franchise was justified.

C2C is different.

C2C is one of the very real success stories. And yet the Government has decided, apparently, that National Express will not be allowed to bid to retain the franchise. To my mind it is madness to punish the franchise operator, and a clearly able and committed management team, because of the various sins of the parent company.

When C2C announced that it was to change its livery from the distinctive purple and yellow to National Express’s bland white, I wrote to C2C expressing my dismay. Why on earth rebrand as failure? Why spend tens of thousands of pounds of commuter cash on making yourself look like a company that is despised? It was the most peculiar piece of PR – unless of course you were the owners of C2C and desperately wanted to repair your reputation by having it more closely associated with success.

Unlike the rest of the failed National Express rail enterprise, the team that manage C2C has shown a very real dedication to their passengers and services.

Unlike many lines, C2C manage all the stations as well as the trains. The only station managed by Network Rail is Fenchurch Street. (West Ham is managed by London Underground.) The difference between the investment at Fenchurch Street (minimal) and elsewhere on the line is marked.

New doors, stairs, waiting rooms, information systems and security systems have all been provided by C2C.

The management team engage passengers regularly, with meetings between a representative passenger panel and C2C – and C2C actually respond. C2C produces Commuter News, a monthly ad-free informative newsletter that explains the causes of problems, highlights coming improvements and draws attention to the engineering works scheduled for weekends.

C2C modernised its entire fleet of trains – yet retains a sense of the old romance with trains named after those who have worked their lives on the railways. They have won awards for introducing regenerative breaking across the entire fleet – something that has made them one of the most environmentally-conscious train-operating companies in Europe.

Most ironically, whilst the Department for Transport rail against National Express and C2C, both the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office point to C2C as an exemplar of a UK train success story.

It would seem that this tired and failing Labour Government is either ideologically sclerotic or determined to prioritise a petty retribution over genuine achievement in the passenger’s interest.

If there is any sense left in Government, Adonis and his crew will at least allow National Express to bid. Regardless of their other failures, National Express/C2C know this line, have shown commitment to their trains, stations and passengers.

They have transformed the “misery line” into one that regularly tops the customer satisfaction surveys and became the first in the country to achieve a punctuality score of 96%.

Ditching C2C would be a big mistake.

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Snow and trains and First Class grimness

So Em and I paid the difference to travel first class because it’s nice to have a quiet space before returning to London. (It’s also cheaper to travel first when booked early than it is to travel standard off-peak booked nearer the day. Go figure.)

We don’t do it, however, to listen to some chav family shrieking at the top of their voices for the ENTIRE journey.

Gruesome bunch. Like the Royle family on acid.

Yes. It’s snow. Yes, it is snowing heavily. We have snow down south too.

No. Harry shouldn’t be running up and down the carriage. No. He really shouldn’t. AT ALL.

Parenting skills much?

And now, according to the nice lady on the intercom, the points are frozen. We are stuck here together a little longer. This is my punishment for blogging about them.

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