Archive for Travel

The Bomb that wasn’t..

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on June 17, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday I travelled back from Cardiff to Brighton via London. Nothing particularly remarkable about that usually, although I am a bit jinxed when it comes to rail travel, and the first half of the journey was indeed fairly straightforward. I left Cardiff at 13.25 and reached London just after 3.30. Not being in a hurry and the weather being reasonable I decided to find out how long it would take to walk from Paddington to Victoria instead of taking the Underground. The answer is about 30 minutes. It’s also quite a nice walk through Hyde Park along the side of the Serpentine and then down to Victoria via Grosvenor Place. I was there just after 4pm.

Anyway, when I got to Victoria there was a huge crowd of people standing outside the station. I thought it was a bit early for the rush hour, but entered the station anyway. All the departure screens were blank. No trains in or out of Victoria for the foreseeable future. Shit.

I asked a policeman in the station what was going on and he told me that an unexploded bomb had been found near the track at Battersea Park just over the river from Victoria. The emergency services were looking into it and until they’d declared it safe no trains could pass it. He advised me to get to London Bridge station and take a Brighton train from there, but the tube station was inaccessible owing to the crowds and when I checked on my mobile it was obvious that no trains were moving from there anyway. I decided I had no choice but to wait for the problem to clear.

I went outside and waited, chatting to some of the others who were stuck like I was. After about an hour I went back inside and almost immediately a Brighton train appeared on the display screen. Platform 17. Hundreds of passengers crowded onto it until it was absolutely packed, standing room only and not much of that. Then the lights went out. Ten minutes later we were all told to get off and get on the train on Platform 16 instead.  We did.

I had actually found a seat on the first train, which meant I was one of the last people off it when we had to move. I was standing on the second one as it trundled out of Victoria. Still, at least I was leaving. It was about 17.20, over an hour after I arrived in Victoria.

The train called at Clapham Junction, where more people tried to get on but couldn’t because we were already so full it was clearly dangerous. Similar story at East Croydon. Then we were approaching Gatwick Airport. We were held at a signal for about ten minutes when the driver announced that the train wouldn’t go to Brighton after all, but terminate at Gatwick.

When things like that happen you get the feeling that the train operators are deliberately making things as bad as possible. We were all heavily delayed already, so a decision was taken to make us even later. I was fuming.

Many people with flights to catch went into Gatwick airport, but I had to make my way against the tide to Platform 7, where the next train to Brighton was due just after six. It was an already overcrowded First Capital Connect train into which I had to squeeze. I stood all the way to Brighton, which took the best part of an hour. I got to Brighton station shortly before 7pm, almost three hours after I arrived at Victoria. People can cycle from London to Brighton in less time than that.

Now it transpires that the bomb at Battersea Park wasn’t a bomb at Battersea Park. It was a leaking gas cylinder. Had the police been confused or were they simply trying to make it seem more exciting than it was?

After I got home I continued to follow Southern Rail on Twitter. Although the bomb/gas cylinder was cleared by 5pm, the chaos on the railways continued until late at night, with cancellations across the entire network as the operations manager made panicky decisions that made a small emergency into a total implosion of the rail service. Heads should roll for this kind of screw-up, but I doubt they will.

From Nagoya

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on January 10, 2014 by telescoper

So, my first ever trip to Japan has started pretty well. The flight via Frankfurt arrived on schedule and I arrived with all the luggage I was supposed to have too! I didn’t get any sleep on the long flight from Frankfurt to Nagoya, but then I never seem to manage to drop off on aircraft. I was quite jealous of the lady next to me, actually, as she slept soundly for most of the journey.

Here I am, then. It’s mid-afternoon local time but ridiculously early morning on my body clock. Travelling West to East is always more difficult, I think. Going the other way you can usually sleep off the jet lag pretty quickly, but going East-West and arriving in the morning (local time) means you’ve basically lost a night’s sleep. On a trip to Shanghai years ago I was in a similar situation, arriving at the airport in mid-morning to be met with a welcoming committee and taken to a very big lunch (complete with beer). When this was over, around 3.30 in the afternoon, my hosts suggested that I must be tired and took me to my hotel. No sooner had I unpacked my bags and put my feet up than I fell sound asleep; I didn’t wake up until midnight. So it was that I remained completely out of kilter with the time zones. It took most of my stay in China to get adjusted. I thus learned the hard way that if you want to deal successfully with the problem of jetlag then you have to stay awake as long as possible on the day you arrive…

I must seem like a complete wimp to those observational astronomers who not only go jet-setting around the world but also climb up and down mountains to get to observatories perched on their summit as well as working all night rather than day once they’ve got there.  How they manage to cope with all that and remain (relatively) compos mentis when they arrive back at their day job is beyond me.

Anyway, despite lack of sleep the flight wasn’t too bad. I was impressed by the collection of classical music and jazz available on the in-flight entertainment system offered by Lufthansa, and there were even some decent movies on offer. I managed to see the first of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies, which I quite enjoyed though I found some of the set-pieces far too drawn out. I also watched, for the first time in ages, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

First impression of Nagoya is that it’s basically an industrial city. My hosts tell me that the city was very heavily bombed during WW2 because of the important factories in the area. The campus at Nagoya University where I’m staying is fairly small but facilities seem pretty good. I’m looking forward to doing a bit of exploring at the weekend, when hopefully I’ll find some interesting historical buildings!

I was a bit worried about how well I would manage without being able to speak (or read) any Japanese. There are challenges, but the excellent Metro system is actually quite well signposted in English so I’m not anticipating too many problems sightseeing. Buying food might be another matter!

Better draw this rambling post to a close. Hopefully my brain will be up to writing something more substantial tomorrow..

On my travels…

Posted in Biographical with tags on January 9, 2014 by telescoper

Hopefully by the time this post is published I’ll be in mid-air. I may be offline for a while but home to resume my blogging activities when I reach my destination.

If you’d like a bit of a clue as to where I’m going, here’s a local landmark…

Mystery Image

Welcome to Britain

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on April 17, 2012 by telescoper

Well then. Back to Blighty. Not the  best journey home, though.

For a start, the 11-hour flight from Cape Town became a 12-hour  flight because of an hour spent circling around in a holding pattern over South London. One expects that at Heathrow. Air traffic delays are the rule rather than the exception, and you learn to get used to it. Kind of. Although since it always happens you would think the airlines might include it in their timetables and other advertising, for the sake of honest and accuracy. Just saying. Nevertheless, this didn’t particularly annoy me.  Despite  getting no more than an hour’s sleep last night I was in a fairly good mood when I got off the plane.

At least until I got into the terminal building, Terminal 5 at Heathrow. For those of you not familiar with this terminal, it’s a gleaming and apparently spacious affair only a few years old. The problem is that when it gets busy, like this morning, you discover that this glitzy exterior masks a design that’s completely idiotic.

We landed at a `B’ gate on a satellite building connected to the main terminal via a `transit’, i.e. a small train. A very small train. When passengers from my flight got to the concourse from which the transit departs, it was crammed full of people who had to squeeze onto the the little train when it eventually arrived:

All this for a journey of about 2 minutes. It would have been much simpler to have constructed a walkway to the main terminal. In fact there is one. For staff only. But not for the passengers. There had to be a transit. Transits are the thing. Of course having a transit means having an extra subterranean level to the building, with lifts going down to it at one end and up from it at another. But lifts are the thing also. There are lots of lifts at Terminal 5. Going forward we’ll all be going up and down.

I wonder if the architect had shares in a company that makes lifts and transit trains?

Anyway on arrival at Terminal 5 there was a similar scrum at the lifts up to passport control. No escalators were working, so I had to wait in the crowd of disgruntled passengers, gradually inching forwards while the 3 operating lifts came and went. As we went up it dawned on me that there might be a delay at passport control..

In fact there were delays before we even got there. The immigration hall was so full that we had to form three separate queues along a corridor just to get into the main queue.

When I finally got into the immigration hall, it was pandemonium. The capacity in this area is clearly far too small and there are far too few people checking passports. The system just can’t cope with the traffic being sent through it. It’s a basic management problem that apparently nobody is prepared to do anything about. Improving it would cost money, of course, but why bother? Passengers are hardly going to turn around and go home at that point, so who cares?

At least the queue for UK/EU passport holders was moving. As I inched forward through the rat’s maze towards a desk I looked from time to time at the “Other passports” line, which barely budged. I felt a sense of anger mixed with shame. What sort of message does this send to visitors to our shores? What kind of country is it that makes showy new buildings like Terminal 5 and then runs them like Fawlty Towers?

They don’t allow photography in the passport control area, by the way. The ban is no doubt an attempt to conceal the evidence of what a shambles it is.

Anyway, at least the long delay at Immigration meant that my bag had arrived at the Baggage Reclaim by the time I got through. I picked it up and made for the Heathrow Express connection to Paddington. The time was just after 8.30; one hour and three quarters after we’d landed.

Still at least I was on my way. Or was I? The train departed and then stopped at a signal. We waited. Eventually the driver explained that there was a major points and signal failure so only one line was operating. We got to Paddington, but it took 35 minutes rather than the usual 15.

There is an alternative way of getting back to Cardiff from Heathrow, which involves taking a bus to Reading and getting the train from there. Although that route is cheaper, there is a risk of severe traffic delays at rush-hour periods, so opted for the Heathrow Express in the belief it was more reliable. More fool me.

When I arrived at Paddington, it too was a mass of disgruntled people. The reason? No trains.

The same signalling problem was disrupting trains into and out of Paddington. All departing trains were simply marked as “delayed” on the boards. Eventually, I got the 9.15, which departed at 9.38. Not too bad in the end. Except that it had to navigate a crowded route westwards. We arrived at Reading after 50 minutes instead of the usual 25.

Then things seem to settle down. We started to move at full speed. I even had a short nap. I was woken by an announcement from the guard. It had been decided that the train I was on would not, after all, be going to Cardiff but would terminate at Newport. First Great Western like to make the most of any possible inconvenience. It’s only 15 minutes from Newport to Cardiff, but it was too much trouble to take us that short distance. We were turfed off and had to wait for local commuter train. Not surprisingly, it was packed so I had to stand all the way.

I’ll be expecting a refund from First Great Western, but that’s not the point. It’s their contemptuous attitude to the travelling public that’s the point. Their prices are so high one might expect them to treat passengers with some respect. But no.

Anyway, I got home exhausted, stressed and frustrated. Given how badly things had gone I half-expected my house to have fallen down while I was away, but thankfully all was well back at the ranch. I decided to cool off a bit before writing this account of the journey, otherwise it would have been even more intemperate! I had been planning to go into work this afternoon but was in no fit state.

Still, it’s good to be home. Kind of.