Monday 11 November 2013

To business!

Back in the 1970s when some of us first became aware of environmental degradation and the impending shortage of fossil fuels it seemed like an impossible task to get politicians interested in anything but more and more cars as far as transport was concerned. I was ridiculed at a public meeting by the then head of Planning at Lincolnshire County Council for suggesting that efforts be made to encourage cycling ("It'll be skateboards next," he jeered - many a true word ...). This is all over now and "green" has become trendy, but so often it is lip-service. I once attended a meeting in a town hall about bus services and was the only person there who had actually arrived by bus! When planning the diocesan clergy conference I was anxious that clergy from around the diocese should know how to get to the venue by train and bus and not assume that they had to drive - which meant telling them to ignore the advice on the venue's own literature which was out-of-date and misleading! We get lots of advice about "shrinking the footprint" and all that, but we have a long way to go to get back to he days when it was assumed that some, at least, would routinely take the train. We use the excuse that Lincolnshire is a rural county, and it is, but it still has a fair number of rail stations and a lot of people live in the populated bits (oddly!) where the stations are located, and a lot can be driven to those stations instead of driving themselves all the way to wherever a conference is being held, or can get a bus to them: for most it is an excuse, not a reason! We can switch off our lights and reuse our envelopes, but until we stop thinking "travel = car" (or, worse, "travel = 'plane") we are not really being "green". It is hard to manage completely without a car, and I do have one, but it is not hard to get our mileage down by several thousand per year if we want to do it.

Last October I was going to The Hayes Conference Centre at Swanwick, Derbyshire, for the National Conference on the Deanery, and for one person travelling alone it is considerably cheaper on expenses, as well as kinder to the environment - and more fun for that person, in my opinion - to travel by train and bus. Now, from Peterborough (and indeed from Grantham) it is a through train ride to Alfreton from where there is a bus every fifteen minutes to the gates of the conference centre, but because of the way the connection times work, this is not the quickest way to get there from Stamford! Never one to take the easy way out when an adventure (which is also quicker) is in the offing, I went the recommended way, from Stamford to Leicester, then Nottingham and Alfreton - the bit between Nottingham and Alfreton is on a train which has called at Peterborough but too early for the one from Stamford to have connected, so going this way saves almost an hour! Although I had to change twice, each leg was still long enough to get some useful work done between changes, a little reading of things in preparation for the conference, but mostly devising and typing up a draft Mission Area Plan document for the Deanery Synod . This planning process required quite a lot concentration and was best done away from the telephone (and internet!) at home anyway. As with so many "business" trips, the train in this case is not actually quicker than driving, but it is time that can be used rather than time wasted driving.

I left Stamford at 14:05 on a Friday afternoon on a Birmingham-bound train and after about 40 miuntes' work was ready to change trains at Leicester . The through tickets had naturally been bought in advance but were not for a specific train, and by buying them through East Coast's website I had earned some points towards my next free trip on their trains, too. My train to Nottingham was a main line East Midlands "Meridian" express from London St Pancras and was very comfortable for this part of the journey and I was soon able to get back to my index-of-deprivation calculations for the parishes of the deanery until Nottingham Castle came into view and I knew it was time to change again for Alfreton. This was quite an interesting change: although the train was a through service from Norwich to Liverpool, the section of route between Nottingham and Liverpool is much busier than the section south and east of Nottingham, so two additional coaches are added at Nottingham to the westbound trains, being taken off again from eastbound trains. When the train came in from Norwich (via Peterborough and Grantham), it buffered up to the two empty coaches waiting at the platform and the gangway between the two units was opened up, and so a four-car set departed for Liverpool via Sheffield and Manchester. My own journey on this train was a fairly short hop to Alfreton where I walked up to the road and waited for a Barton bus to Swanwick. Those who've lived in Stamford long enough will remember Barton's as the local transport provider here as well: it has changed a bit since those days and the bus served me well: it does fiddle around a bit in Alfreton but it gets there soon enough. One of these days I'll see if I'm quick enough to walk across Alfreton to catch an earlier bus the other side!

My return trip was on the Sunday afternoon. Sunday travel used to fraught with difficulty, but it is not so bad now. True, that is still the day when there can be disruption due to engineering work, but now it is taken into account when your journey is planned, so your travel advice applies on the day you travel, and there are still some lines which do not have services on Sundays, but there are not many now, and those that do generally start later but then run a decent service. Thus my journey back, which was not affected by works so far as I know, was much the same as my journey there - except that by now I had made a number of new friends and we travelled back some of the way together! Four of us gathered at Alfreton station and travelled to Nottingham and then three on to Leicester together, where I said farewell to my London colleagues and awaited my train to Stamford. So I did much less of the deanery plan on the way back, but continued to learn from the experiences of lay people from other deaneries in other dioceses. This is the other great feature of travelling this way: you do actually get to meet other people, and life is much less insular than sitting in ones own car listening to ones own CD collection and looking at the world as an observer rather than a participant.

This trip is one which would not have been possible in the 1970s, for the station at Alfreton was not there then and the hourly Norwich-Liverpool service did not exist. The "great car economy," as a later prime minister was to call it, was in full swing and it was assumed that railways woud continue to wind down and that buses were the last refuge for those who could not properly participate in society. Mercifully, the trend has reversed and railways are now carrying more passengers than ever and the opening or reopening of stations and even lines is gaining momentum: it is more complicated since privatisation but the pressure is relentless. (Meanwhile facilities for cyclists are growing and the rebuilt skatepark is about to open. Who looks ridiculous now?)

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