The view from the front of the train

Most men, if they’re honest, have wanted to drive a train at some point in their life.  Others want to whizz round in a racing car or score a goal for England or a try for Wales.  Anyone who’s seen me try to kick a ball (and I avoided this as much as possible in school) will know that the latter is unlikely.  While visiting engineering apprentices I have actually sat in a racing car (it’s a tight squeeze) but the engine was turned off.  But this evening I did get to at least sit with the train driver while we hurtled from Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads at 125mph.  So that’s one boyhood interest finally ticked off.

As an MP I meet with Bristol’s train company First Great Western on a frequent basis.  Big changes are being made over the next few years to the mainline to London.  Reading station is being expanded, freeing up a bottleneck that often delays trains. The Coalition Government has given the go ahead for electrification of the line.  This will bring new trains and faster services to Bristol within five years.  My journey home today was an opportunity to get a front row seat to discuss these changes and see things from the driver’s perspective.

So here – for friends and constituents who may be train enthusiasts, or even spotters, here’s an account of what the journey looks like from the front of the train.

I travelled on the 4pm train out of Paddington.  I was sat in engine 43152, which unlike many trains, doesn’t have a name.  Our driver was Nigel, who has been a train driver for over 25 years.  For the first mile or so the train travels at just 50mph, as far as Kensal Green.  Up to Acton it’s allowed to double the speed and from then onwards it really does travel at 125mph.  Curiously, it doesn’t really feel that fast up front and the train even curves around bends in the track at that high speed.

The trains that run between London, Bristol and South Wales are some of the oldest on Britain’s rail network.  As a boy in the 1970s I remember seeing an “Inter-City 125″ train for the first time at Cardiff station.  The cab design is remarkably simple, with not much of a hint of 21st century technology and gizmos.  A bit like an automatic car, there are just 4 gear settings, “FOR” (forward), “ENG ONLY” (ie neutral), “REV” (reverse) and “OFF”.  Speed is selected by a sliding black knob to the right of the driver, pulling it from “OFF” through 1, 2, 3 and 4 to MAX and you’re at 125mph.  The brake is similar, operated by the driver’s left hand.   Speed from 0 to 140mph is marked by a simple traditional clock face speedometer, with no confusing kilometres.

None of this has changed since the trains entered service.  What has changed is the safety features and some guidance on fuel consumption.  These heavy beasts get through huge amounts of diesel.  There’s certainly no sat nav in the cab.  But the train does communicate with track side sensors and a small screen gives information on the ETA at the next station. Every minute or so Nigel has to touch a pedal, responding to a loud beep that’s testing he’s alert.  Like all drivers he has thorough health checks (eyesight, hearing, blood pressure and an ECG) every 5 years.  Different beeps alert him to oncoming signals – though you can see Red, 1 Yellow, double Yellow and Green quite easily from a long distance.

Once the train is travelling at 125mph the small screen with station destination times occasionally says “COAST” and Nigel moves the speed knob to OFF and the train happily coasts at about 120mph, such is the momentum of a heavy train.  I learned that Brunel’s “billiard table” flat route is a myth as the train goes up and down gradients.  And from Swindon to Bristol it’s downhill much of the way, coasting at over 100mph.

From the cab you get to see the huge variety of bridges over the line.  These are going to be one of the main challenges for electrification. They are too low to carry the cables over the train.  But instead of rebuilding the bridges (many of which are of attractive red brick construction) the lines will have to be sunk.

After leaving Chippenham station at 17.13 we coast downhill towards Box tunnel. The tunnel is dead straight, so that over-used political cliche of “light at the end of the tunnel” is immediately apparent.  We travel through at 90mph in pitch darkness, punctuated by circles of light from the three ventilation shafts.

The approach to Bath, through the cuttings and many bridges of Sydney Gardens, will be another challenge for the engineers attempting to hook up the electric cables.  From Bath we coast at 95mph gradually down hill to Bristol Temple Meads.  It’s rained virtually all the way but as we pull into platform 13 the rain stops.  I’m sure the journey is prettier in May sunshine but it was great fun all the same.