Friday, September 22, 2006

LET'S GET LOST; Quick? Quick? Slow!

Richard Branson's new stunt is another fraudulent snowjob, says Paul Stump

You've heard them. You've seen them. Usually on any home counties motorway, the monied maniac or criminal in the purring supercar, headlamps and klaxons ablaze whose outside lane this is, blind-eyed by the local filth cos it's more than their job's worth. London bars ring with it; Y'know what? Did Bristol to London in an hour. Nah, I DID! 145 down from Membury. Wudda done it in 55 but there was a lane closure at Osterley...

What springs to mind? No, after the building of new Gulags to house such people - one imagines Richard Branson and his wannabe ilk. Thrusters who know toes have to be trodden on if business is to be done on time, if business is to be done right.

The news that a Virgin Pendolino had completed the 401-mile Glasgow-London run in 235 minutes at an average of 102.5 mph seemed nothing but a similarly asinine piece of saloon-bar oneupmanship, interestingly timed to coincide with the re-tendering of Virgin's cross-country routes..

This journey up the Premier Line, the LMS's north-south trunk, has been British rail's blue riband event for speed since the 1930s, when Sir William Stanier's peerlessly elegant Duchess Pacific 6201 Princess Elizabeth completed a non-stop Euston-Glasgow run in 395 minutes - with a load considerably heavier than Branson's toy, it should be added. Six hours became the Premier Line's holy grail; then five, achieved with through electrification in May 1974.

It seems almost cruel to pile even more scalding coals of relativism on Branson's lukewarm boast, but when I last checked, a few years back, the fastest journey from Paris to Marseille - comparable to London-Glasgow at 414 miles - took 187 minutes, averaging roughly 133mph. We're not talking one-off publicity trip with tickets sold at astronomical prices for 'charidee', all signals at green, all paths cleared. No, this was multiple services, daily. Now it's doubtless faster, and will get faster still. Every half an hour a TGV leaves Paris Nord for Lille, taking 57 minutes to cover 130 miles. The fastest TGV schedules average around 159mph (Pretend Brum-London timing? 46 mins). Madrid will soon be linked to Barcelona at a comparable speed.

These aren't trains whose arrival is greeted with a sheet-lightning of flashbulbs. there's no radio or TV; no pressmen; no bumfluffed grinning berk or battalions of tight-assed PR dorises with monogrammed flyers. Such rapidity and reliability (mostly) is the daily reality of life in Europe; the daily reality of life à la chemin de fer bransonienne is 202 pounds for a return from Euston to Manchester, stratospheric delays, shoddy corporate branding, traduction of tradition. Branson is roughly a quarter of a century behind the times; in 1976, Marc Arzens' beautiful SNCF CC6500 locos glided 12-coach TEEs from Paris over a tough line to Bordeaux in four hours flat, averaging 92 mph, twice a day. In 1981, the TGV raised the bar again, pushing average speeds into the fat end of 150mph. Let's get this straight- this was when Phil Oakey and the Goombay Dance Band were fighting it out for No.1 single. And Beardie expects applause in 2006?

The Pendolino's dash was all publicity; as was (whisper who dares amongst the gricers) Princess Elizabeth, the Coronation Scot and Mallard's mad 1938 sprint down Stoke Bank. But all those heralded a nascent reality of achievable speed and modernism visibly worth buying into. Branson's record is perhaps the greatest offence against the railway industry he has yet committed (ask any user of his trains - you'll get a myriad answers, all horrible). The LMS or LNER had not committed serial offences against its customers, nor betrayed their trust or faith nor tried to screw them senseless. Those were records that had credibility - not just credulousness- on their side. Branson's 'coup' shows not progress, but only how far British railways have fallen behind.

But as we are a country in thrall to publicity rather than reality (how else could the dread Dickie have survived?), maybe it shows that publicity is all we really care about. Until we're stuck outside Lichfield Trent Valley for a few hours with a coachload of pissed Scouse squaddies, fingering our tickets and wondering how the enormous sum on the slip of paper will get Branson out of his next fix.

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