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Sep 05 2012

Visit for the trains, stay for the science

I’ve been to the UK a few times now, and I have to say that one of my favorite things about the place is visiting a huge wrought iron train station and hopping onto a train for a long ride through the countryside. I think my ideal for a pleasant British vacation (“vacation”? I don’t know what that is any more) would be to just ride around the country for a few weeks.

So Robin Ince hooked me by starting his story with a train ride (I now want to travel from London to Cornwall), but the real message is about a fundamentally human principle of science: curiosity, inquisitiveness, exploration.

38 comments

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  1. 1
    bortedwards

    I presume your jet-lag happily correlated with the severalmhours mandatory offset from the printed timetable for “delay due to unforeseen circumstances”…

  2. 2
    Eamon Knight

    I think my ideal for a pleasant British vacation (“vacation”? I don’t know what that is any more) would be to just ride around the country for a few weeks.

    Did more-or-less that, last summer. In England for 17 days, rode inter-city trains on four of them, also three steam excursions (England must have more preserved railways per square inch than just about anywhere), and a couple of locals. St. Pancras and York are beautiful big train stations, even smaller stops like Penrith and Cheltenham have that 19th-century wrought-iron charm.

    I’d go back in a heart-beat.

  3. 3
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    We regret to inform you that the 6am to Cornwall has been delayed due to leaves on the line. Also, sheep.

  4. 4
    feedmybrain

    I wish I could share your enthusiasm for the British train experience. Privately owned but heavily subsidised, price rises way above inflation and now the one good operator, Virgin, have lost their contract to an operator who completely cocked up their last contract and has promised the impossible on the new one. Fucking Tories.

    York, Edinburgh and Newcastle have nice stations though

  5. 5
    otrame

    I visited England and Wales last summer and had a blast. I agree that travel by train is my favorite. Love, love, love it. In fact, I do it here when I can–which isn’t all that often, since Amtrak keeps contracting. I hope to go back next year. I loved Cariff so much that if Romney wins I may move there.

  6. 6
    otrame

    DAMN IT

    I loved CarDiff. Why do I only see these things AFTER I hit submit?

  7. 7
    Louis

    As a UKian I never thought that our trains would ever garner anything other than mockery and hatred.

    I am actually, for the first time, literally aghast at something PZ has written.

    There’s stuff I don’t agree with, there have been things I’ve thought could be stronger/weaker/different, but liking the British rail network? Such weirdness never even occurred to me.

    Impressive!

    Louis

  8. 8
    Gregory Greenwood

    It pains me to say it, butI’m with feedmybrain, I’m afraid – train travel is obscenely expensive in the UK, and getting more so with every passing year. Doubly so considering that services are so often late or cancelled, often with little to no warning, and many of the trains are dirty and poorly maintained.

    And of course, now we have the Conservatives in power eager to do what they always do – make a bad situation worse.

    Still, it is true that the stations tend to be nice to look if you like Victorian era architecture. Which is just as well, given how long you will likely spend waiting in those stations, imploring the Elder Gods to intercede and remove the leaves from the line that have delayed the train for the umpteenth time that week…

  9. 9
    richardelguru

    Louis: Compared with AmTrak…
    “You leave the Pennsylvania station
    ‘Bout a quarter to four,
    You read War and Peace
    And then you’re in Baltimore.
    Dinner in the diner,
    Nothing could be finer
    Than to have your next six meals in Carolina.
    When you hear the whistle blowin’ eight to the bar
    Then you know the goods ahead has derailed a car.
    Perhaps if they shoveled coal in
    They could get the bloody thing rollin’.
    Boo! Hoo! I think we’re staying right where we are…”

    :-)

  10. 10
    macallan

    You may want to check out some of these next time you’re in Old Europe.

  11. 11
  12. 12
    Gregory Greenwood

    Louis @ 7;

    As a UKian I never thought that our trains would ever garner anything other than mockery and hatred.

    I am actually, for the first time, literally aghast at something PZ has written.

    There’s stuff I don’t agree with, there have been things I’ve thought could be stronger/weaker/different, but liking the British rail network? Such weirdness never even occurred to me.

    Impressive!

    I know – talk about strange. I mean, actually liking the risible mess that is public transport in general, and train travel in particular, in the UK is something that I would have thought physically impossible.

    Just goes to show how odd those colonials Americans really are. Must be something to do with living in that huge country of theirs – so much wide open space clearly addles the brain…

    ;-P

  13. 13
    Matt Penfold

    It pains me to say it, butI’m with feedmybrain, I’m afraid – train travel is obscenely expensive in the UK, and getting more so with every passing year.

    If you are able to plan ahead you can get good deals on advanced purchase tickets, but you are right that turn up and go fares are ridiculous. Not to mention the fare structure is totally fucked up, what with it sometimes being cheaper to buy two singles rather than a return, or to buy separate tickets for different legs of your journey.

  14. 14
    Matt Penfold

    oh, and Robin Ince is absolutely right about the line between Exeter and Newton Abbot. It is stunning. When I lived in Plymouth I used to travel that stretch quite a bit, and it never failed to impress.

  15. 15
    Louis

    Plymouth?

    UNION STREET!

    Louis

  16. 16
    Matt Penfold

    UNION STREET!

    I got drunk down Union Street many a night.

  17. 17
    Gregory Greenwood

    Matt Penfold @ 13;

    If you are able to plan ahead you can get good deals on advanced purchase tickets, but you are right that turn up and go fares are ridiculous.

    If you plan ahead you can reduce the cost, but isn’t part of the advantage of trains supposed to be that you don’t have to book ahead like you do for aircraft, and so they can function more effectively as an alternative to car travel over medium distance journeys?

    And of course, as you say, fares on the day of travel are completely bonkers.

    Not to mention the fare structure is totally fucked up, what with it sometimes being cheaper to buy two singles rather than a return, or to buy separate tickets for different legs of your journey.

    Oh yes – the fare structure in the UK is infamous for making no sense at all. It isn’t even internally consistent, let alone close to being rationally arranged.

    In general, the whole idea of the much despised ‘public/private partnership’ is fatally flawed.

    Giving private companies access to public money while they run a for profit business? And having one set of companies administer and maintain the lines, while another set have the rolling stock, and so the various different organisiations would have difficulty cooperating to organise a knees up in a brewery, let alone run an integrated public transport network? What could possibly go wrong with that…?

  18. 18
    Eamon Knight

    @13: We were lucky that, as tourists we could purchase a BritRailPass before we arrived, which gave us turn-up-&-go service at what I understand is a very cheap price compared to what the locals pay. Cheap enough that we even sprung the extra for First Class (which is *very* nice).

    Never did understand how money worked, though: on every train, the conductor just glanced at our passes, and didn’t even seem to note the fact. I have no idea how that particular carrier got their cut for transporting two Canadians.

  19. 19
    Louis

    Matt,

    In the Bad Old Days I was particularly fond of how the military police would deal with fights amongst squaddies/marines/locals in the night clubs/bars on Union Street:

    Administer a thorough kicking to all and sundry, drag them into the street and then, and only then, try to distinguish between civilian and military personnel.

    It was a very effective method!

    Louis

  20. 20
    PZ Myers

    Louis: You haven’t ridden the trains in the US.

    If you can.

    Most places aren’t even served by train: Morris was founded as a railroad town (it’s even named after a railroad executive), and there is no train service at all here. The tracks have all degraded to the point where they’re only suitable for freight, the train station is shuttered.

    Every time I get in my car to make the 3 hour drive to the airport, I wish we had decent mass transit of some sort.

  21. 21
    Louis

    PZ,

    True, true. I’ve always flown/driven in the USA. It’s just interesting to note that (not among this crowd obviously) that two pieces of (semi random) comment from our American cousins are “trains = good” and “NHS = socialist bad”. We Brits say basically the absolute opposite.

    It’s a fun perspective shift. It gives one th feeling of being slightly drunk.*

    Louis

    * That’s the sherry apparently.

  22. 22
    bortedwards

    I must say, train travel to conferences is Infinitely more relaxed than the wham-bam-thank you-scam that is air travel. Especially if, like me, you leave presentation writing until the session before…

    But PZ, I’m not sure how useful it may be in a utilitarian sense, but the train trip I took from LA to Evolution in Portland and thence onward to Vancouver must rate as one of the more stunning I have taken, and I have tootled several continents by train.

  23. 23
    Matt Penfold

    In the Bad Old Days I was particularly fond of how the military police would deal with fights amongst squaddies/marines/locals in the night clubs/bars on Union Street:

    Administer a thorough kicking to all and sundry, drag them into the street and then, and only then, try to distinguish between civilian and military personnel.

    It was a very effective method!

    That had more or less ended by the time I moved to Plymouth, but it was still worth avoiding Union Street anytime the NATO fleet was in port, or a US Carrier was paying a visit. Royal Marines and British Squaddies used to love beating the crap of out American sailors.

  24. 24
    Matt Penfold

    Never did understand how money worked, though: on every train, the conductor just glanced at our passes, and didn’t even seem to note the fact. I have no idea how that particular carrier got their cut for transporting two Canadians.

    I imagine there is some hugely complicated formula for working out what train company get what.

  25. 25
    richardelguru

    It’s worth noting (as someone said)that booking ahead really pays if you are visiting (or living in)the UK, but there can be real weirdnesses.
    For example, I go home at least once a year and always book weeks ahead, online from Texas, and get singles for both directions. This can reduce the cost (Liverpool Street to East Anglia) to a fifth or a quarter the price of getting a return on the day of travel at the station.
     
    Having lived in the US and the UK (each for 30+ years) I am convinced that public transport is WAY better in Britain (and as someone, possibly else, implied above “NHS = socialist good“).
     
    And now-a-days they even seem to do more to make the sandwiches edible than just dust them every week or so. :-)

  26. 26
    jefrir

    Maybe the Brits complaining about the trains is like the Americans complaining about the price of petrol. It’s all a matter of what your base expectations are.

  27. 27
    Sean

    Since 1994 the rail network has descended into a mess, which is curious, as we all know how wonderfully deregulation and privatisation tends to work out. I’m sorry, I’ll type that again: privatisation has been the clusterfuck many predicted. Train travel in the UK is expensive, coaches are overcrowded and ticketing so confusing that Ben Elton’s observation that there’s probably a ticket called the SupeySuperSavyWavySaver, which only permits passage on the second Tuesday of Lent in a leap year* was probably the most prescient observation he ever made.

    Even so, parts of the network are beautiful and the some of the stations are truly impressive. It could be so much better, which is why I support the campaign to Bring Back British Rail.

    *Elton continued, suggesting that the ticket would not allow travel on an actual train, merely the opportunity to run alongside the track.

  28. 28
    Louis

    Jefrir,

    I think you have nailed it.

    Louis

  29. 29
    tbp1

    Similar stories: my wife and I were waiting for a train in Scotland and heard the announcement that the such and such train would be delayed due to sheep on the rails.

    And the first time we got a Britrailpass, we took five trips before anyone bothered to validate it. I really thought we were going to be able to take it back to the US and get a refund (you can get a refund on an unused pass, minus a handling fee).

  30. 30
    Eamon Knight

    Re: Sheep on the rails.

    There’s a question on the Customs form you fill out when entering Canada asking whether you’ve visited a farm while out of the country (agricultural quarantine thing, I guess). Coming back from England, I was wondering what to put — the whole damn island of Great Britain is one bloody great sheep farm!

  31. 31
    tbp1

    At Eamon, #30. Indeed. I think every picture we have from rural UK has at least one sheep in it somewhere. Yet bizarrely, my wife had trouble finding good quality knitting yarn, and what she did find was incredibly expensive, much more than the same yarn in the US. (Although on the plus side, she did find a “fully licensed” knitting shop.)

  32. 32
    revjimbob

    Hey! I’ve been on the London – Cornwall train when I went to Penzance to see the total eclipse in 1999, after flying into London from Scotland.
    On the way back I endured a 20+ hours bus journey. With only 1 spliff. Not so nice.

  33. 33
    Callinectes

    Unlike many in the UK, I haven’t experienced serious delays on the train network. With two notable exceptions. One was during a school trip to London on July 7 2005.

    And the other was when a sheep wandered onto the track and caught fire.

  34. 34
    cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming)

    As another UK-nian who’s spent three-quarters of the last 20 years commuting 2 hours/day on the rail network, I’d say the experience palls. Even if I do get to see sheep.

    That said, if you want to see dramatic countryside, you could do worse than take the Virgin Pendolino train out of London. Seeing the landscape slide 15° from under you is quite strange, and leads to thoughts like “why doesn’t that pond empty into that field”. :-)

  35. 35
    Rich Woods

    In my life I’ve made the train trip from the Lincolnshire Fens to the Cotswold Hills, and vice versa, a hundred times.

    I’ve always loved watching the landscape slide by while pressing my nose against the train window. Yesterday, for once, I could afford a ticket which left my nose pressed against the inside of the window instead of the outside.

    http://www.bringbackbritishrail.org/

  36. 36
    cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming)

    (Oh, and, re: leaves on the line.)

    About five years ago, the train co. attacked this problem by simply cutting down the trees growing on the railway cuttings. But they underestimated the regenerative powers of Acer pseudoplatanus, mwahaha!

    I look forward to examining them closely as I inch towards my destination.

  37. 37
    Red-Green in Blue

    Seeing the landscape slide 15° from under you is quite strange, and leads to thoughts like “why doesn’t that pond empty into that field”. :-)

    Or thoughts like, “Will I make it to my destination before my stomach contents empty into someone’s lap?” Even some of the train crew get motion sickness, according to a guard on one of the Pendolinos. It’s made worse by the combination of the UK’s restrictive infrastructure gauges, and the Pendolino’s side walls which slope in to avoid striking said infrastructure while tilting. Along with the undersized windows, lack of leg room and unpredictable aircon, the overall effect seems designed to be unpleasant.

    IMNSHO, Virgin Trains is/was a “good” train operator only in the sense that surströmming is “good”. I lost count of the number of times I missed a connection because they were late – again. They seemed to have a knack of always losing time. To be fair, on one occasion they paid for a taxi to my final destination because my missed connection was the last train of the night, but the result was that I was even later, and the taxi fare was twice the walk-on fare for the whole journey. On one memorable occasion I reserved two seats and two cycle spaces on a specific service from Manchester to Glasgow, and turned up at Piccadilly station with tickets, reservations and confirmation e-mail printout in hand, only to find that there was no such train leaving at that time, and that therefore my tickets and reservations were invalid.

    As for the Voyager trainsets, they were far shorter than the trains they replaced, with a risible provision for luggage and cycles. They have twice caught fire when I was on them. The toilets look snazzy but often their stench permeates the carriage. The sliding internal doors often slide open despite being motorised if the train is going around a corner, but won’t stay open while people are filing off the train, predictably shutting in your face and meaning that you have to put down all the bags you’re carrying to press the open button.

    Virgin was almost single-handedly responsible for destroying my faith in the reliability of British railways, and convincing this erstwhile dedicated public transport user of the merits of the car, at least within Britain. I have absolutely no sympathy at all for Virgin. Good riddance, and I hope Richard Branson chokes on his sour grapes.

    Sure, FirstGroup hasn’t a hope of improving the service with their track record and the ridiculous franchise agreement they’ve signed, but at least that means there’s a better chance they’ll cock it up so badly that the government will be forced to cancel the franchise and take direct control as they did with the East Coast Main Line and South Central.

    Sorry, rant over.

  38. 38
    Amblebury

    I took a train from Manchester Airport to St. Bees when I did Wainwright’s coast-to-coast. I seem to remember some very peculiar coastal landscapes – Barrow-in-Furness I think. Also Sellafield.

    Anyhow, I loved it.

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