Sunday, May 2, 2010

Trip to England 2010 - return home

Sunday 2 May

It rained all night long and was raining as we left the hotel for the three minute walk to Paddington station and the Heathrow Express. A good day to leave London.

The Heathrow Express was fast and efficient as ever. The short trip out on the Great Western main line evoked many memories. In Paddington station we could see the the Directors' balcony above platform one. I remember hiding in the cab of “Clun Castle” on one of the last steam hauled passenger trains out of Paddington, the 16:15 to Banbury. I had to hide until we were out of the station because my boss was looking out from the Directors' Balcony and I should have been doing my training in the Accounting Department. I then got down to shoveling coal.

We left under the wires. On the left was the site of Raneleagh Bridge servicing point where the steam locomotives were turned and serviced ready for their return to an out of London location.

Kensal Green gasometer has survived and is now preserved under a good coat of paint.

Old Oak Common with the now deserted Eurostar maintenance depot on the down side. In the yard was a class 08 diesel electric shunter that was old when I was working. I once got one of these up to 14 mph going down the incline to Reading Goods. The driver was quite upset with me although I pointed out that the maximum speed was 15 mph. No sign of the four turntable roundhouse, of course.

We raced past the site of the former Acton marshalling yard which is now used only by stone trains. I caused an upset when I wrote my report about working there as I predicted that there would not be a place for it in the new railway. I was right.

At Ealing Broadway the Central Line was closed for engineering work for the weekend. There were two electric loco-hauled ballast trains and a lot of work men, materials and equipment.

The Hanwell Viaduct, made famous by John Turner's painting “Rain, Steam and Speed” is still carrying trains, although they are now a lot heavier and much faster than when it was opened.

Southall now has station signs in English and an Asian language. The steam shed still survives and a number of preserved relics are in there.

Hayes and Harlington was the site of a record making factory.

Then everything went blank as we entered the tunnel to get to Heathrow. Heathrow is a joy. The passenger circulating areas from the train are extensive, wide and easy to use. 45 minutes after we had left Paddington Station we had checked in and were through security and waiting for our flight to be posted. As usual, the Air Canada departure lounge was very calm and orderly and again there was plenty of room. We left on time and arrived in Ottawa a few minutes early.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Trip to England 2010 - London

Saturday 1 May

I had a shock this morning when I tried to upload some pictures from the first SD card out of the camera.  It looks as if the camera has corrupted the card.  The later two cards seem alright but no more pictures.  It subsequently turned out that I was able to recover a good proportion of the images through Dr. Data.  Will need to get a new camera when I get back.

London is a mess. The Underground is practically shut down for the weekend. There are posters everywhere saying before you go to the airport, before you go to the match, before you go shopping you had better check for the planned disruptions. The entire Jubilee Line is shut down as are the western sections of the Central Line and the eastern part of the District line. Many of the escalators are out of service or under repair - it is like being in a building site. The Oyster card is not much use if using it is a problem. There are lots of congestion points getting between the platforms and the surface or another platform and I don't understand why there are differences in height between the platform and the trains when they have been running the same trains for years. At least London Transport make it easy for one to find out about the planned disruptions through text, email etc., but better not to have them in the first place. This is the result of many, many years of underinvestment.

Of course these problems are not confined to the London Underground. Robert and Elora who were with our group planned to stay overnight in London before returning to Glasgow today. However, the West Coast Main Line is shut down for the weekend and they are being forced to go to Glasgow on the east Coast Main Line via Edinburgh and it was goping to take them about seven hours I think.

We took the underground to St. James park and walked across to the Mall and down to Trafalgar Square. At the St. James Park station there were 30 or 40 police vans full of London policemen, playing cards etc., At least they weren't kitted out in riot gear and none of them appeared to have firearms. On the way we passed a group of schoolchildren who were drumming - very entertaining. We walked past St. Martin in the Fields and along to Covent Garden which was a zoo being filled with tourists and people trying to relieve tourists of their money. We quickly left for the Strand and down to the embankment which was a little more sane. We crossed the river on the Millennium Bridge and had lunch at the cafe in the Tate Modern.
Messes/Fish and Chips and fried broad beans
English toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream/Caerphilly cheese and chutney.
Bottle of Rueda
We then had a look at the Tate and walked along to London Bridge which was another zoo. It had started to rain by the time we reached Canary Wharf but, with the help of an Auxilliary Policewoman, we found a pub where we had a very passable Fullers London Pride best bitter.

It started to rain. To get back to Paddington we took the Docklands Light Railway to Bank and changed to the Central Line. We lucked in to a car with a number of drunks of both sexes who were trying to entertain everybody with songs. The girls were trying to get everyone to join in saying "You will never experience anything like this again". This was certainly true as they were in danger of having wardrobe malfunctions. The Central line had quietened down by the time we got to Notting Hill Gate where the exit to the Circle Line was long, tortuous and arduous.

Neither of us has changed our opinion about London. We don't like it and much prefer Paris.

The first thing I did on getting back to the room was to check in for our Air Canada flight to Ottawa tomorrow. We are going home.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Trip to Switzerland 2010 - Interlaken to London

Friday 30 April

07:44 bus Bonigen to Interlaken Ost 07:50.
08:31 Interlaken Ost to Bern 09:23
09:32 Bern to Zurich xxx
Zurich trams routes 2 and 4
13:02 Zurich to Paris Est 17:34
19:13 Paris Nord to London St. Pancras 20:34

While waiting for the bus into Interlaken it was good to hear the cow bells across the lake even though we couldn't see where they were.
Spiez 11679, Thun 841 037 5.
We made the trip to Zurich as planned and in comfort - the SBB double decker trains are wonderful to ride in. There was plenty of time to walk down to the lake and take a tram back.

There was a nut job on the station at Zurich, He was waltzing around with a cup of Starbucks coffee and spilling most of it - which is probably quite a good idea. Then he went over to a bank of payphones, punched one digit and then was pretending to have a phone conversation.

Mary went into a high end chocolate shop and negotiated for enough chocolate to use up our remaining Swiss francs. She even managed to spend the loose coins we had - a small bite-sized cookie cost one franc.

TGV stock arriving at the platform in Zurich.

We met up with Dave Eakins as planned and the TGV left on time. There are some bright red apartment buildings on the outskirts of Zurich. Everything went to the timetable We picked up a second TGV set in Mulhouse. I noticed we were right hand running on the conventional lines in Alsace but the high speed lines use left hand running. The line runs through quite flat land in France with a lot of evidence of chalk. There were many fields of rape seed in full bloom which added great swaths of bright yellow to the landscape.

We quickly walked from Gare de l'Est to Gare du Nord and found a great place to have a beer overlooking the main concourse and train shed at Gare du Nord. Eurostar check-in was quick and boarding was in good time. Eurostar was very comfortable compared to the TGV and the trip was accomplished with just one station stop at Ebbfleet International. Such an easy journey. Perhaps the most dicey part was the Hammersmith and City line between St. Pancras and Paddington.

It is always sad saying goodbye to friends we have made on trips like this. We part with good intentions but the reality is that we will likely not see them again. Brian and Kath from Norwich (Kath is a Maid of Kent and I am a Man of Kent), Gerald and Josephine from Bristol and Margaret (Elora) and Ronald from Glasgow - there were quick goodbyes at St. Pancras just before we were engulfed in a hoard of loud school kids returning from France. Earlier we had said goodbye to Carl and Marion at Zurich and to Sandra and Paul through the train window at Bern.

This was the end of an amazing trip which showed us a great deal about the wonderful country of Switzerland. We used public transport a great deal and it was all clean, comfortable and on time:

Train – 62
Bus/trolley bus – 18
Boat –8
Tram –7
Funicular – 6
Cable car – 2

Trip to Switzerland 2010 - Montreux

Thursday 29 April
08:08 Bonigen bus to Interlaken Ost 08:50
09:08 Interlaken Ost to Zweisimmen 10:19
10:25 Zweisimmen to Montreux 12:13 (Golden Pass Panoramic Express)
12:40 Montreux Lake ship to Veytaux-Chillon 12:55
14:26 Veytaux-Chatillon to Lausanne 15:04
15:20 Lusanne to Bern 16:26
16:35 Bern to Interlaken Ost 17:28
17:38 Interlaken Ost bus to Bonigen 17:46

This was a long day of travelling with very little other content. The weather was hot and several trains were very hot as well. The Golden Panorama was very crowded and there were not enough seats for everybody on the train. We were forced to travel in second class because others refused to give up seats which had been reserved for us.

The scenery was good but not really spectacular. With the windows open, the coach would be filled with the sound of cow bells every so often as we went past a herd close to the tracks.

Chillon Castle was good, but not spectacular. It was good to see the shores of Lake Leman, the Swiss Riviera, even if to know that I really would not want to return. At least the first language is French.

The return via Lausanne and Fribourg was through very different country than we have seen in the last few days. Rolling upland hills with many settlements but with a very French influence on the houses and other structures.

Bob Saves the Day
We were given very specific instructions on how to get to the station at Veytaux Chatillon. This is a double track line with trains passing frequently at 60 mph and only one stopping passenger train an hour in each direction. In fact a train of oil tanks went through just ahead of our train at high speed. Two of the group were missing and Will went back to the castle but couldn't find them. They turned up at the next station, having missed the turning in the path, but were on the platform on the wrong side. She was panicking and almost went to cross the live tracks as they obviously couldn't make it through the subway in time. Will ordered them to stay where they were and asked Bob to get off and get them back to Interlaken.

Bob is probably the most savvy European rail traveller in the group. He loves traveling for its own sake and will often get in a tram going in the wrong direction " To find out where it goes. It's an adventure and you don't get lost for very long."

Bob took this couple out into the street and saw a trolley bus. His French was barely good enough to recognize the word "gare" but the trolleybus took them to Montreux station where they caught a non-stop train to Lausanne. Our train stopped at all stations. They arrived just as the train to Bern was running into the platform - to great cheers. Bob really had saved the day.

Trip to Switzerland 2010 - Jungfrau area

Wednesday 28 April

08:08 Bus Bonigen to Interlaken Ost
09:05 Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald 09:39
09:47 Grindelwald to Kleine Scheideg 10:20
10:31 Kleine Scheidegg to Wengen 11:04
12:02 Wengen to Lauterbrunnen 12:19
12:31 Lauterbrunnen (cable car and train) to Murren 12:51
13:06 Murren (train and cable car) to Lauterbrunnen 13:27
14:33 Lauterbrunnen to Interlaken Ost 14:54
15:10 Interlaken Ost (funicular) to Harder
16:10 Harder (funicular) to Interlaken Ost
16:38 Interlaken Ost bus to Bonigen.

Click above to see a slideshow of pictures taken this day.
Early morning views of the lake from our room have been great in the last few days. The weather has been superb. It is good to be woken up by the ducks.

Today was our “free” day and we decided to go on the Jungfrau Railways but omit the climb to the Jungfrau summit because of the two hour ride in tunnel and also the cost. The weather was clear, sunny and without clouds all day. It was pretty hot and I didn't need my jacket or my fleece. One problem at this time of year is that very few places are open and it is consequently difficult to find a restaurant.

The first part of the ride is through a lovely valley with tremendous views of the mountains on each side. Once again we saw many crocus in those areas where the snow has just gone.

We were not enticed to linger at either Grindelwald or Kleine Scheidegg but stopped at Wengen for a coffee. Up to Kleine Scheidegg we spoke with a couple from Neuchatel who spoke French. It was good to finally hear some French spoken. Until now it has been pretty solidly German except for a little Italian. Paul and Sandra came with us and we met up with Carl and Marion just as we were about to leave Wengen for Lauterbrunnen.
 View from Kleine Scheidegg
The Wengenalpbahn seems to run its trains in batches of three, both directions. There were very few people on our train between Kleine Scheidegg and Wengen but they were expecting a lot to come down later by the crowds on the trains going up. A couple of trains were completely full of Indians speaking English.

The conductor on the train to Wengen came from Skipton in Yorkshire. He has been here for many years and loves the mountains. The engine drivers on these lines have a blue and black uniform jacket with “Engine Driver” writ large across their shoulders.

We took the cable car and tram up to the car-free village of Murren but were not enticed to stay.  There was very little open and there was an overpowering stench of manure.  It reminded me of the Monty Python Holy Grail "There's a nice bit o' shit dahn 'ere." 

Lunch at Lauterbrunnen was very slow and there was a pitiful choice. I would have walked out if I had been on my own.

The trip up to Harder was very good and well worth the effort. We received a 50% discount. At the top there is a very pleasant viewing platform/restaurant where we had a drink and shared a lemon ice cream with vodka (supposedly).

View from the terrace of the cafe at Harder Summit showing several parasailors.

Trip to Switzerland 2010 - Bern and Thun

Tuesday 27 April

07:44 bus Bonigen to Lutschinenstrasse 07:50
09:01 Interlaken Ost to Bern 10:53
Bus and trolley bus in Bern
14:35 Bern to Thun 14:52
15:10 Lake ship to Interlaken West 17:22
18:05 bus Interlaken Ost to Bonigen 18:10
Click above to see a slideshow of Bern and Thunnersee
I was out early to give me time to walk alongside the railway yard to get some pictures of the narrow gauge wagons used to transport standard gauge cars. I even found a couple at the loading point. There was then still time to walk along to see the bottom station of the Harder funicular railway.

The ride to Bern was very pleasant with many good lake views. Saw a couple of the dogs that looked like dark, heavy-set irish Setters. Our ride to Bern was in a quiet car in which no cell phones are allowed and people talk in whispers.

The firtst thing that struck us was the number of red streetcars and trolley buses. The streetcars are of three, five and seven sections. There are some gas buses as well . There is a marked absence of motor vehicles in the city centre and people were not confined to the sidewalks. We had a city guide at Bern – she was very good. She moved us at a good pace and knew a great deal about the city. Once again we had very good weather which helped to leave a good impression of the capital of Switzerland. We took the bus to the rose gardens and then walked down the hill to see the bears for which Bern is famous. They have now a much more country-type setting which is very bear friendly. The male has been separated from the female since she gave birth to two cubs. The cubs were running around their enclosure having fun. There is plenty of room for them to amble and gambol around. They were climbing trees and chasing each other around.

The main historic area has very few motor vehicles and frequent trams and trolley buses. The buildings are all constructed with a green sandstone which makes for a somewhat boring appearance. They all have ground floor arcades which are good for when it is raily but they do not let the light in very well. There are a lot of cellars, originally for storing wine but which are now used for boutiques, restaurants, etc. We saw the clock chime twelve. It was built in the 15th century and the clockwork is used to operate a number of figures. The clock has to be wound each day. The cathedral was good but somewhat gloomy. The stained glass windows are excellent if somewhat limited. The organist was practicing the Samuel Barber Adagio and needed to brush it up a bit.
We had a short time to ourselves in which to have lunch. We each had a large sausage with a large dollop of mustard and a roll. A lot of people were sitting in the street eating their lunch and we felt very much at home.

The Bern station is very big. There is a parking space for bicycles, down stairs in a secure area. It was very heavily used.

Following a short train ride to Thun we took a lake ship back to Interlaken. We called at several points on the Thunsee including Spiez. It started off very hot but gradually cooled down.
 There were some interesting haze effects in the mountains as the sun sank towards the horizon. We walked with Carl and Marion from Interleaken West to Ost and caught the bus back from there.
Click here to see pictures of Bern and Lake Thun
Click here to see pictures of Bern Trams

Trip to Switzerland 2010 - Andermat Gornergratbahn

Monday 26 April

07:44 Bus Bonigen to Interlaken Ost
08:31 Interlaken Ost to Spiez 08:52
09:12 Spiez to Brig 10:24
10:53 Brig to Zermatt 12:14
12:24 Zermatt to Gornergrat 12:57
13:31 Gornergratt to Zermatt 14:14
15:39 Zermatt to Visp 16:47
16:57 Visp to Spiez 17:24
17:33 Spiez to Interlaken Ost 17:57
18:05 Bus Interlaken Ost to Bonigen 18:10

Click above to see a slide show of Zermatt and Gornergrat
Saw a merganser in the lake outside the hotel. All trains ran to time today and the travelling was quite easy.  We had quite a long conversation with one of the BLS train crew on the train between Spiez and Brig. She spoke excellent English and French as well as German. She was using a hand held machine to identify the passeners' travel which was downloaded directly into the BLS computer by radio.  It seems that passengers start to complain when the trains are running over three minutes late.

The ride on the Matterhorn Gornergratbahn (MGB) from Brig was really great, especially after Visp. The weather was excellent and we could see all of the moun tains right up to their summits. There was a little cloud on the lee side of the Matterhorn. There are a lot of vinyards on the steep valley sides and many of the houses have rooves of heavy stone slabs similar to a very thick slate. There was grass and moss growing on the stone. At St. Niklaus, four post buses were drawn up at the station – their drivers were huddled together in a small circle chatting to each other. There were several long haired goats with black fronts and white rears. The chestnut trees were in bloom here.

Ticket for Gornergratbahn
The Gornergratbahn ticket system was pretty good. You merely had to pass the it over a reader to open the turnstile both to get in and to get out.The ride up to Gornergrat was spectacular and we enjoyed every minute of it. There is a look-out at the top and it was breath-taking in the high altitude to climb right up to the panoramic viewing platform. It was sobering to think that I lived for a total of six months at this altitude in La Paz a few years ago.  There was a St. Bernard dog having his picture taken at the top.
 Matterhorn from Gornergrat summit.
We decided to take the next train down to give us a little time at the bottom to get a light lunch. We went to a small cafe we had seen from the train. We each had a beer and Mary had goulash in a loaf of bread while Colin had cholera (!) – a puff pastry pie of cheese, potato, apple and onion with a very good salad.

The ride back was great although uneventful. We travelled through the new 18 mile Lotschberg tunnel which speeds things up considerably. Many of the SBB trains have the locomotive in the middle with driving trailers at each end.

BLS locomotives seen
Interlaken Ost 176, 194
Kandersteg 936 134 6 172, 168

MGB Locomotives seen
Randa 54
Andermatt 23, 72
Visp 74, 91