6 April 2010

An Easter Wayfarer

The last time m'colleague and I ventured into Derbyshire, to avail ourselves of the transport network therein, our trip had gone less than well: we left a train at Derby and went outside to catch Trent Barton's Transpeak service to Buxton - it arrived from Nottingham with standing room only. We both squeezed on to Derby city centre where the queue of 40+ people was left behind. We ran progressively late until our itinerary had to be drastically altered. Both Plans B & C went to pot as non-operational bus services formed the day's staple diet. In the end, we caught Hulley's Service 172 from Matlock to Bakewell and back, before returning to Derby with our tails between our legs.

That was May Day 2008, could Easter Monday 2010 be any better? In a word, yes.

One of the advantages of a Bank Holiday Monday, for those who live a fair old distance from the Peak District and Derbyshire Dales, is that train services ostensibly run to a Monday timetable, while Sunday timings are used for bus services. Bus routes on the Sabbath vary considerably in Derbyshire, accommodating the thousands of tourists who descend on the world's oldest National Park.

We left Stamford aboard a CrossCountry Class 170 'Turbostar' at 0805, bound for Birmingham New Street, though alighted at Leicester. To my eternal shame, the line from Peterborough to Stamford, thence Oakham, Melton Mowbray and Leicester is one I've never travelled before, so Stamford was our Lincolnshire starting point on this occasions for precisely this reason. The three-car Turbostar, 170639, was immaculately turned out and very quiet indeed. So quiet that we accidentally stumbled across a young mother breast-feeding in Coach B.

170639 departs Leicester, bound for Birmingham New Street

There was insufficient time to venture into Leicester city centre and, besides, the ticket gates often concern me - do they know a break in outward and return journeys are permitted with an Off-Peak Return? Will they retain my outward portion despite the outward journey not having been completed yet? Leicester, despite it being relatively early on a Bank Holiday, was a hive of East Midlands Trains (EMT) activity, with three Class 222 'Meridian's and a couple of HSTs passing through within the 20 minutes or so that we were there. Our next train was operated by EMT and was bound for Sheffield. Meridian 222002 arrived punctually at 0904 and we were soon speeding towards Derby.

222002 departs Derby after transporting us from Leicester

Once home to the railways, Derby's station had become a bit of an eye sore until recently, when it's undergone a face lift. Very nice it looks, too. Our outward tickets were retained as we passed through the barriers in order to purchase a Derbyshire Wayfarer (DW) ticket, which would enable us virtually unhindered access to all buses and trains within Derbyshire and to/from certain locations beyond the boundary. The DW costs £8.60 for 1 adult+1 child or dog but a group ticket is less than double this, at £13.70 - and there's no requirement to travel with children, so m'colleague and I always purchase this Group version. All mainline stations in Derbyshire and a couple outside the county sell the DW, as too do the larger bus operators.

The DW is laminated in a special wallet, so you need to grab the attention of one of the station staff manning the barriers in order to pass through. We were to catch the 0950 EMT service to Matlock. For the past year or so, all journeys on this service now commence at Nottingham; hitherto it was a shorter Derby-Matlock service, requiring people for Nottingham to change. A Class 158 is a frequent performer on here and we weren't to be disappointed as 158783 arrived in good time. The Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) had undergone its refurbishment at Delta Rail - just down the road, coincidentally - and now sported the red moquette and very high-back seating. No longer do EMT's '158s' offer bucket-type seating. In fact, so substantial are the new seat backs, it makes visibility virtually nil.

158783 is seen here at its terminus in Matlock. Pre-Beeching, trains such as the Blue Pullman, would pass through en route to Manchester via Bakewell, Monsal Head and Millers Dale

Our journey north from Derby is an all-stopper, calling at Duffield and Belper on the Midland Main Line, before branching off at Ambergate - where once there stood a station whose platforms were laid out in a triangular fashion, though today just one exists on the branch line. Whatstandwell soon followed and this is a location I holidayed at regularly with my family. We then passed through Cromford - where avids of Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys would know stands the world's oldest factory - and onto Matlock Bath, which I see as a seaside resort that's missing the sea, before onto the line's terminus at Matlock. Despite efforts at the less-popular stations to restore signage and general presentation to that of yesteryear, both Matlock and Matlock Bath station signs carried British Railway's 'Regional Railways' logos.

As detailed below, Matlock's former bus station is now referred to as Bus Stands C & D, yet is more substantial than the new one opened next to the train station

Our tightest connection was now - 1035 Service 17 to Chesterfield, operated by Stagecoach in Chesterfield. Matlock now has two bus stations, dissected by the River Derwent. Derbyshire County Council refer to the original station as merely 'bus stands' today, and they're located a good 5 minute walk from the train station. Stagecoach often deploy Volvo Olympians to Service 17 and the route is superb when seen from the top-deck of a vehicle of this type. Initially, the circuitous Lime Tree Hill with its 1-in-7 gradient poses a struggle for many vehicles and then a few miles further, the much more linear Slack Hill offers spectacular views across the valley. Aboard a bog-standard ADL Dart/ADL Pointer, 35261, YN56 SGZ, it has to be said, the experience is somewhat diminished.

Stagecoach Service 17 sees alternate Summer Sunday journeys extend beyond Matlock to Ashbourne, though ours was one of the 'shorts'

A brisk walk was needed now to Chesterfield train station to board our third EMT service of the day - this being the 1137 to Sheffield, formed of two 5-car Meridians (222023+222019). There was more than ample space inside as the 10-car formation headed north through Dronfield to its Sheffield terminus. I'd never travelled aboard a two-unit Meridian before and while it was clearly not needed for this journey, I assumed operational staff had calculated it would operate a busy service later in the day.

Seen at Chesterfield is our train to Sheffield, formed of two Meridians 'kissing'

In Sheffield, the train's length is best depicted here

At Sheffield, by chance, we bumped into an LEYTR Member who's a train conductor for Transpennine Express and had a nosey round the cab of one of their Class 185 'Desiros', before heading to the Interchange to catch our next service - TM Travel's 218 to Buxton.

Back-in-the-day, this service was operated by Potteries Motor Traction (First PMT) and linked Hanley with Sheffield via Leek, Buxton, Bakewell, Baslow and Totley but reliability issues and tachograph requirements saw the service split at the equidistant locality of Buxton: First South Yorkshire would provide the re-numbered 218 between Sheffield-Buxton and First Potteries would provide the Hanley-Buxton section. First South Yorkshire, however, lost the contract to operate the service to TM Travel, who now provide the eastern section; D&G now operate the western section, numbered 118.

Have Optare at any time produced a Solo with fewer seats than 23? Seen here in Buxton Market Place is our chariot from Sheffield, which arrived too late to connect with First Potteries Service 118 at Hanley, inconveniencing a handful of through-passengers

There were a good 30 people at Bay B6 within Sheffield's spotless, award-winning Interchange as we joined the end of the queue. Our vehicle was visible in a parallel lay-over bay, the driver (we presume) having his lunch. We were scheduled to depart at 1230 and so you could imagine our dismay when the 23-seater Optare Solo pulled up at 1229. I couldn't help thinking that TM Travel badly underestimated the popularity of this run. There are only 3 on a Sunday, this being the middle one. A 23-seater Solo was woeful, especially since the service passes through the honeypot of Bakewell on a Bank Holiday Monday.

Deary, deary me

We departed 7 minutes late and the elderly Optare Solo - W286 EYG - really struggled on the gradual inclines through Totley. I tried to keep an eye on the time, but when we joined the queue for Bakewell two miles before the first house, I knew our 15-minute connection at Buxton onto Bowers' Service 61 at 1400 would not be made. It took us just over 30 minutes to traverse Bakewell. Our Solo, with around 40 soles on board, sold 6 tickets to fare-paying passengers. What shocked me was when a very elderly man asked if I knew the times of the buses back! The free bus passes have taken social mobility and inclusion to ridiculous levels! Never mind the overload, people over the age of 60 just simply hop on a bus to somewhere nice without researching the times of buses back!

Changing subject, here's a shot of Bridge 86 at Chesterfield station; or more accurately, here's a shot of a sign stating Bridge 86 at Chesterfield station. As part of the station's renovation, a footbridge was removed here, though its sign remains in situ

Unlike our May Day 2008 experience, no one was left during this Wellglade-operated journey, and once beyond Bakewell, our driver 'gave it the beans', though a diversion was required as the A6 is currently closed between Topley Pike and Buxton due to a landslide. This means all vehicles have to operate via Brierlow Bar and the A515. My Plan B was to catch the 1430 Northern train to New Mills Newtown and then walk to New Mills Central to catch the 1511 Northern train to Grindleford (the latter always being the aim). We arrived in Buxton Market Place at 1414 and saw a queue had formed for Trent Barton's Skyline 199 to Manchester Airport, due out at 1415 - passing the train station, which was a good 10 minutes walk otherwise.

Trent Barton's vehicles are always well-presented, though the row this Scania made was very noticeable. It's seen here on its inbound journey, before turning and departing for Manchester Airport 10 mins late

What to do? Hope the Skyline 199 would arrive, load and leave in time to deliver us to the station punctually enough to enable us to catch the 1430 train, or just walk to the station and chance that it can be done in time? We both elected to remain in Buxton Market Place and wait for the 'really late bus company', departing as we did at 1425. Traffic was very slow as we headed to the station and there was no train visible as we passed at 1432 so, instead, we remained on our consecutive Wellglade-operated service to Newtown. Our vehicle was a Scania/Wright Eclipse Solar 644, FN04 HSC, that, if we're both honest, sounded as rough as old boots!

As we headed north from Buxton, we passed Trent Barton's most northerly depot at Dove Holes. Seen outside is a Plaxton Premiere Interurban-bodied Volvo B10M, wearing Transpeak livery

There was no chance of catching the 1511 Northern train to Grindleford now, so I concocted a plan to return to Buxton using Bowers' Service 61 via Fernilee - a delightful run. We were 17 minutes late alighting Trent Barton's 199 at Newtown and in just over 15 minutes, at 1525, the Bowers service would depart the town centre. We had time to partially wander downhill towards New Mills itself, passing the Swizzles-Matlow factory which, when conditions are right, emits the aroma of Refreshers (or at least used to - can you still buy Refreshers?). Bowers operate Solos on the 61 and this was to be our newest so far - YJ54 UBH, though its saloon heaters were stuck on hot, making for a particularly uncomfortable, if incredibly scenic, journey back to Buxton.

We both recommend Service 61 between Buxton-New Mills-Glossop to anyone wanting a day out in the Peak District. During the High Season, the service extends over Holme Moss to Holmfirth, which is an exceptional run. Seen here is Bowers' Solo operating the service heading towards Buxton Market Place after we'd alighted at the Spa

Had we stuck with the original plan, we'd've caught TM Travel's Service 215 from Grindleford Station to Bakewell and then Hulley's Service 170 to Chesterfield. As it was, we now were back in Buxton and boarded TM Travel's Service 66 to Chesterfield, which departed at 1630. Yet another Solo was provided - YN56 AHY - and the driver kindly allowed us to board a good 10 minutes before departure time, affording respite from the biting wind. It was in an all-over red livery and during the week is used on services acquired with the business of Thompson Travel in 2005. Today, however, we were treated to the very scenic journey to Chesterfield via Millers Dale, Litton, Tideswell, Eyam, Calver Sough and Baslow.

Another red Solo, this time operating for TM Travel as we head to Chesterfield

I can't help thinking that despite the capacity of some Solos rivalling that of a low-floor Dart, they're just not proper buses for riding these routes. Time was when these services were operated by Alexander PS-bodied B10Ms or ex-London Darts/Alexander Dash for Stagecoach - even TM Travel initially used DAF/Optare Sigmas and Hulleys operated Lynxes. Drivers cite the appaling steering lock and lack of front overhang as attributes that ironically make the Solo more difficult to drive than a full-size bus, but I'm not sure if I agree.

We caught a CrossCountry Voyager, new to Virgin, from Chesterfield to Derby. The vehicle's fleet number is awkward to view on XC trains - it's right at the bottom of the front panel in white

Back in Chesterfield, we made our second stroll to the train station and boarded a journey earlier than planned - a CrossCountry Class 220 'Voyager' - 220018 - at 1807, so that we could arrive in Derby with sufficient time to see the city's long-overdue bus station that opened a week ago. A separate blog entry will be made next week on this subject. Our trip back to the station aboard one of Arriva Derby's nearly-new Scania Omnicities was interesting though. I've been on Nottingham's examples countless times, but Arriva Derby's have a different rear-end layout. They certainly look the business.

From having a tired, ageing fleet five years ago, Arriva has transformed its Derby operation, spending millions rejuvenating the front-line vehicles. Seen here is a Scania Omnicity outside the train station

We headed back to Leicester at 1918 aboard an EMT Meridan, 222012, bound for London St. Pancras and from there a CrossCountry Turbostar, 170397, to Stamford, arriving precisely at the booked 2100.

I'm sure we've all had horror stories to tell, travelling by train over a Bank Holiday weekend, however, this jaunt saw the train services flying the flag, with EMT supplying additional resource and every single train journeys being accurate (rather than punctual, which can see trains arrive 8 minutes late and still be considered 'on time'). TM Travel let themselves down by not supplying a vehicle with adequate capacity for a journey from Sheffield into the Peak District (a decision clearly within their control) and their driver not loading up until 1 minute before departure time. Had we arrived Buxton 7 minutes earlier (1407), we'd have walked to the station for the 1430 train.

The last photo of the day was of our EMT Meridian after dropping us at Leicester in order for us to catch our last train to Stamford. It was 8pm by now and we were very much enjoying the longer days!

Despite this glitch, which prevented us a ride along the Hope Valley Line, the day went very well and was much improved from our last trip. We both heartily recommend the Derbyshire Wayfarer ticket for anyone visiting Derbyshire (not just the Dales and Peaks), which offers unsurpassed value for money.

Derbyshire Wayfarer info

4 April 2010

At the sharp end

We are both delighted, nay, excited to bring you details of an LEYTR Exclusive - a cab ride in a Class 395 'Javelin', operating along HS1 at speeds of up to 140mph. We were given unmetered access to the cab environment and undertook a journey between London and Ashford alongside the driver. For obvious reasons we can't divulge dates and times since cab rides are frowned upon nowadays.

From December, train operating company Southeastern introduced a fleet of Hitachi's high-speed electric multiple units, running to a new, frequent timetable and attracting headline-grabbing top speeds of 140mph. These new dual-voltage, six-car trains - the product of Japanese precision engineering - are referred to as Javelins and have been categorised as Class 395 trains.

A total of 28 are used to operate the new London-Kent services, radiating from the impressive London St. Pancras International station. They all operate using the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - colloquially referred to as HS1, or High Speed 1, passing through Stratford International, Ebbsfleet International and Ashford International. It is here that the Javelins switch from 25kV overhead electricity supply to 750V DC third-rail operation, continuing their journeys using the classic lines within Kent.

Two Javelins stand at their elevated platforms, to the east of Eurostar departures at London St. Pancras International. They have the look of Japan's Bullet Train, though what you're actually looking at is nothing more than a pair of DVTs.

There are three routes, all commencing at St. Pancras. Two per hour operate opposite each other to create a thirty-minute headway to Ashford via Stratford and Ebbsfleet; one then operates to Dover Priory, while the other terminates at Margate via Canterbury West, Ramsgate and Broadstairs. The other route operates half-hourly at opposing times along HS1 to Ebbsfleet, thence Faversham via Gravesend, Gillingham and Sittingbourne. This gives an evenly-spaced 15-minute service from St. Pancras to Ebbsfleet.

At no other point on the National Rail network on mainland Britain is it possible to exceed a speed of 125mph. We'd both travelled along HS1 before, with Eurostar, and their Class 373s are permitted to travel at 300kph (186mph) - the maximum line speed, though in typically British fashion, our Javelins are limited to 140mph. We would witness this on numerous occasions (though displayed in kilometers per hour - boo! hiss!) as well as capture a very unique perspective of the UK's most talked-about railway line.

We met our driver (an avid blog reader, you might guess!) on Platform 12 around 20 minutes before departure. He walked us along his train, formed of six cars - two Driving Van Trailers (or more precisely, a Pantograph Driving Trailer Standard Open, since simply refering to them as DVTs could give the impression passenger seating is not available) and four standard motor cars. He explained that the motorised cars are the four central carriages and that those either end (where the driving is done) are the DVTs. Each train will seat 352 passengers, hold 2 wheelchairs and accommodate 508 standees. They look resplendent in their all-over dark-blue livery and Southeastern has gone all-out in advertising the train's main attribute: 'high speed' vinyls are prominently displayed on all carriages.

Southeastern has chosen to promote the route's credentials over its corporate identity

We entered the driver's cab through the front passenger door, and were met with a scene that truly emulated that from the Starship Enterprise. I defy anyone to liken driving a train with that of a bus after standing in the Javelin's cab. Rows upon rows of buttons, gauges, screens, monitors and cupboards ensconced the driver's seat. Wow. Becoming au fait with this traction type takes a little longer than a month in a classroom, primarily due to the unique signalling that can be found on HS1. Save departing St. Pancras, there are no other lineside signals until Ashford. Instead, permitted line speeds are shown on the driver's dashboard and flash when they are expected to reduce. Drivers identify each section using marker boards at regular intervals along the route. This is known as the European Train Control System (ETCS) and 7kph above the permitted line speed will see an emergency brake application. The specific cab signalling system used in the Javelins is called TVM 430.

Complex, very complex. You'll note that despite the futuristic design, a phone is still an essential component

Our train was bound for Dover Priory and we were 'given the road' (green signal) one minute before our departure time. The public address system can be heard in the driver's cab and following the automated announcement we then heard the train manager repeat it all (it's a requirement)! The driver had undertaken a brake test soon after entering the cab and had received a phone call from the Train Manager, informing him that he was on board and preparing for a punctual departure. Departure from St Pancras is controlled by platform staff using what is known as CD/RA (Close Door/Right Away) indicators. At departure time, CD is shown by means of an indicator near to the signal. This tells the driver to shut the doors. Once this has occurred and all yellow body side indicator lights are out, the RA - 'Right Away' is given and this gives permission to the driver to start the train.

Off we went. Within seconds a myth was busted - that pedalled by the press in the run-up to the full timetable's implementation, which claimed drivers were asked to travel along HS1 at the more sedate 125mph, as opposed to the headline-grabbing 140mph. Our driver told us that he'd never been requested to do anything of the sort and cited the timings as so tight that if you weren't running at near the maximum speed you'd soon get very late indeed.

The last traditional signal before Ashford is seen here, as we enter Tunnel 1 immediately after St. Pancras

To get us going the driver applied full power straight away. Speed quickly rose to the permitted 40kph (25mph). The signalling system uses traditional colour light signals between St.Pancras and the entrance to Tunnel 1, however it is under the KVB system, where speed is control by beacons, so care must be taken to avoid speeding or an emergency brake application will result. After we round the curve towards HS1, power is applied again briefly and shut off. We enter Tunnel 1 doing around 55kph (34mph) with speed increasing on a downhill gradient. The TVM 430 signalling system arms and shows 80kph (50mph). We continue to coast downhill and shortly after it increases to 160kph (100mph). Full power is now applied and acceleration is rapid. The TVM updates further to 200kph. Unfortunately there is a neutral section and the driver is forced to shut off power for this while doing 120kph (75mph). Full power is re-applied and we easily reach 175kph (110 mph) when the TVM changes to a flashing 225kph for the approach to Stratford station. A flashing indication means a reduction of speed is expected and our driver slows the train as the system shows 200, 160, and finally 100kph for entry into Stratford International. The platform is not on the main line, allowing Javelins to be held here during busy periods to allow Eurostars to dash past at the 230kph (143mph) line speed.

Preparing to depart from St. Pancras, we see an inbound Javelin arriving from Faversham

No sooner had our eyes become accustom to the light, we'd arrived at Stratford - 7.5km (4.7miles) in 5 minutes. From London Victoria, National Express coaches take 45 minutes to reach Stratford. On the approach to the station, Eurostar's Temple Mills depot could be seen and accessible spurs noted; Westfield shopping centre was to our right and the Olympic Village to our left. This stretch of line will be instrumental in conveying spectators to the Olympic Games in just over two years' time. Southeastern has said that the frequency of trains along this section of route can be summarised in seconds rather than minutes.

Despatch from Stratford is Driver Only Operated (DOO) and 24 cameras allow the driver to do this safely. Once the blue door interlock light is lit, full power is applied and as we accelerate there is a hissing sound as the doors are shut tightly against their seals to avoid uncomfortable air pressure changes. Although the TVM system is showing a permitted 100kph (62mph), our driver applies full power straight away and shuts off the power at just 60kph (37mph). This is to avoid overspeeding and heading towards 100kph (62mph) as we enter Tunnel 2. We are still coasting with speed increasing on the downhill gradient at 85kph (53mph) when at last the TVM display updates to 160kph (100mph) and full power is applied. There the lever would stay until we attained our full speed of 225kph (140mph). Note the actual line speed is 230kph (143mph) for Eurostars. The gradients in the tunnels are not level and after our descent towards Redbridge the line climbs steadily at a gradient of around 1 in 240 towards the tunnel portal at Dagenham. However speed is still increasing we just attain 200kph before the steep 1 in 45 gradient robs us of a few kph as we emerge into Essex.

HS1, by this stage, runs parallel to c2c's Tilbury Line and passes Ford's Dagenham plant. Also at this stage I was getting very annoyed by a seemingly random alarm bell that sounded. Our driver told me this was his vigilance alarm, which would sound randomly, requiring him to either move his dead man's pedal, on which his foot was placed, or to move the Traction/Brake Controller. This prevented him from simply placing his bag on the dead man's pedal; he was required to make a physical movement.

Stratford International's Down line, as seen from the train driver's perspective

The cab smelt new still, and while this wouldn't ordinarily be worthy of note, is impressive since the Javelins have been in service for almost a year. They'd been ordered in 2004, with the first arriving in August 2007, with a drip-fed shipment thereafter for two years precisely. A preview timetable between London-Stratford-Ebbsfleet(-Ashford) commenced in June last year, with enhancements added in September when some classic line-operation took place. The trains are maintained at Hitachi's purpose-built £53 million depot adjacent to Ashford station, with a number of sets stabled overnight at both Faversham and Ramsgate stations.

We left the action having emerged from Tunnel 2 and were currently running parallel to c2c's Tilbury Line. Our speed was increasing now to the fastest we'd attained so far. Our driver said that under normal circumstances, the first opportunity to reach the top speed of 225kph (140mph) is as the train passes the Wennington Crossovers. Our driver duly obliged and we were now hurtling along HS1 covering 1 kilometer every 15 seconds. I even managed a crafty shot of us travelling at 226kph (141mph), and afterwards asked our driver what the situation is with overspeeds. Apparently, up to 3kph over is acceptable, though any more is recorded and the driver is required to explain all to his manager. 7kph over and an emergency brake application is made.

Top speed + 1

It had taken us 12 minutes to reach our maximum speed and while part of me was a little disappointed we weren't cruising at 140mph sooner, we had made a stop at Stratford. Our driver said that the Javelins aren't as powerful as he'd hoped and on some inclines he needs to have the throttle open fully and despite this, progress is painfully slow. He was also of the opinion that the trains performed better when drawing their power through overhead lines rather than the third rail, used on the classic lines. On paper each motor car has 4 motors and there are 4 motor cars rated at 210kW. This is a total of 3360kW or 4500hp. This gives 16.3hp per ton making this train the most powerful EMU in Britain. By comparison Virgin's Pendolino trains have 14.6hp per ton but don't have to deal with long gradients of up to 1 in 40 on HS1.

It now began to rain and the double wiper blade came into its own. When travelling on a bus, averaging 20mph, rainfall always looks more severe owing to the manner in which the bus is driving into it; travelling many, many times faster than this sees even the lightest shower pummel the windscreen to the point that visibility is significantly reduced, and a second wiper blade, mounted to the same arm but parallel to the existing blade, ensures as much rain water is removed from the windscreen per wipe. It seemed very effective.

Our speed was now reducing as we approached Tunnel 3 - Thames Tunnel, the other side of which is Ebbsfleet station. From here connections are possible using the award-winning Fastrack bus services. With the Dartford Road crossing visible to our right, the TVM beeps and flashes 200. Our driver applies the brakes are as we enter Thames Tunnel, approximately 2.5km long. There is a 1 in 40 descent into the tunnel followed by an equally sharp ascent which aids our braking down to below the 100kph required for our approach to Ebbsfleet. We pulled in just 17 minutes after departing St. Pancras.

These almost-unthinkable journey times are what high-speed train travel is all about; they are what spur the political parties on - all clamouring to offer this revolutionary mode of travel within the next generation. Unlocking the commuter potential in this part of Kent - where commuting has taken place since year dot, but now revolutionised (at a cost, it has to be said) - is nothing compared to the possibilities of linking much larger settlements with London. Thousands could conceivably commute to London from Manchester each and every day. We were both now witnessing first-hand just what a revolution High Speed is - even to a small, densely populated island such as ours.

Welcome to Ebbsfleet

Our driver checked the 24 CCTV cameras that covered the carriages as well as offering vision of those boarding from the platform, before closing the doors and proceeding. The door system is identical to that in use on the Japanese Shinkansen or Bullet Train and has over 40 years of operational experience and development. Conveying large numbers very quickly has overridden aerodynamicity here, too, with the doors not flush to the outside body shell, but set back slightly in order to slide open and close as fast as possible.

The top monitor controls all CCTV cameras and the driver and switch between all

We've covered the downgrading of a guard/conductor on this route in a previous blog entry, and even managed to publish a Train Manager's opinion of it all in the subsequent days. To those outside the rail industry, £25k a year to just check tickets with no worries about anything else could seem a very cushy number; to others - namely existing guards/conductors - it's the start of a slippery slope, that will see many similar moves be made to downgrade their roles and to make them no longer safety-critical. ScotRail faced strikes last month over this very issue.

As we gained speed with gusto, I remarked that we'd not passed any Eurostar trains so far. Our driver explained that between 1200-1400 there is a purposeful lull in these sub-Channel services, known as a 'white period' that enables engineers to check the line. Obviously this period has been made a little bluer now, with four trains per hour in each direction being added to the mix.

Incase a reminded is needed, drivers are made aware of the maximum line speeds along the sections of route operated (CTRL = Channel Tunnel Rail Link, aka HS1)

Ebbsfleet is 20 minutes away from Ashford, which is where we'd be leaving the service. South of Ebbsfleet is also one of the steepest gradients on the line, and running at maximum speed, our Javelin - 395114 - laboured up the incline, seeming to level out at 170kph (105mph), rising to 196kph (121mph) by the top.

Our restart from Ebbsfleet is rapid. Full power is applied to 95kph and not long after the TVM shows 160 and full power is applied again. The line now rises steeply - initially at 1 in 60, increasing to nearly 1 in 40 as we approach Singlewell Freight loops. The gradient eases here to 1 in 260 and allows our speed to reach 175kph (110 mph). Incidentally, we had just passed Southfleet junction where Eurostars are permitted to increase speed from 230kph (143mph) to the full line speed of 300kph (186mph). Our speed increased dramatically after the apex had been passed and we shot up to the maximum 140mph almost immediately. We literally flew across the Medway Viaduct, parallel to the M2 - this decline (Blue Bell Hill) enabled trains to increase their speed by 10kph without any need for additional acceleration. We were drawing 2000 amps of current at this stage and shot through (what I refer to as) Tunnel 4, the North Downs Tunnel.

Crossing the Medway

We now cruised just under 140mph while alongside the M20 and we both received a reality check of the speeds at which we'd been travelling. Facing forward never affords a traveller with the same experience of speed as facing sideways. While stood next to the driver was an amazing experience, I personally hadn't fully appreciated travelling at twice that permitted on our motorway network. To our right we say Porches and BMWs travelling at half our speed. The sight of a Eurostar travelling at 186mph along this stretch must make motorists feel even more impotent.

We passed through Boxley Tunnel - an unnecessary structure, built as a result of wealthy land owners' fears about the blighted landscape they could face. Hansard reading from 1994 illustrates this well. The 70km milepost passed us by and we'd covered the distance in 20 minutes. This translates as an average speed of 129mph. Eurostars are expected to travel at the line's maximum permitted speed here - 300kph (186mph). This marker also heralded the beginning of the longest, flattest section of HS1, where the Javelins would be brake tested when new. Trains departed Ashford station, headed for London, and would attain their top speed as soon as possible before all brakes were applied along this stretch. Trains would stop after 48 seconds and over a distance of 1.5km (0.9 miles). While a mile may seem a very long period in which to bring a train to a standstill, we both felt it impressive, considering the speed travelled and overall weight of the train.

In a rather macabre fashion, our driver said that with the stopping distance being such, if he saw anything on the track while travelling at 140mph, he'd simply apply the brakes and pull down his sun visor so he wouldn't be able to see the point of impact. The Javelins don't have the luxury drivers are afforded in Class 185 Desiros, that sees their cab door open, enabling the driver to run out of the cab into the main carriage, should he spot a disaster ahead. Staying in this melancholy vein, we now passed under Westwell Leacon Bridge, the scene of HS1's only suicide fatality to date.

We began to slow in order to leave HS1 for Ashford. We were shown Platform 5 routing ahead and as we moved onto the spur line, our driver said that only on one occasion so far had the points been set incorrectly and a Javelin headed in the direction of France, though this was not the fault of the driver! At the top of this branch is where the Electronic Train Control System ends and signals are given by the more traditional lineside structures with their coloured lights. Overhead line equipment is still required as we pull into Ashford station, with the switchover to third rail operation taking place at the station itself.

We ascend the spur that heralds the end of pantograph operation and commences that of third rail. Lineside signals also recommence, too, with Ashford station in the distance

We arrived at Ashford International precisely 37 minutes after departing St. Pancras - perfectly punctual. It was a very memorable experience and despite not gaining a special High Speed tie, neither of us left downhearted. Obviously we'd like to thank our anonymous driver (who continued to Ramsgate) and look forward to undertaking another journey in the future.