Ah, Great Britain. Over the last few hundred years we have been the inventors of the world. We gave the world its first computer, the jet engine, the television (sort of), the telephone (again, sort of), and mechanical standardisation. We also gave the world football, cricket, rugby, polo, and darts.
There is much to be proud of. Sadly, though, this pride is still printed in black and white because, as with so many things, we were there first, for a time the best, and now we are as remarkable as Danish agricultural policy, i.e. not very.
However, there is one area where I maintain we are still the best: railways.
Unlike Michael Portillo and his pastel jacket and copy of Bradshaw’s Guide, I won’t wax lyrical about how some godforsaken rural outpost in deepest Northumberland once laid claim to a booming tin trade, which was lost to the savage swing of the Beeching Axe, but rather give credit where credit’s due.
Our railways are the oldest in the world, and yet even 136 years ago there was barely a part of the UK you couldn’t reach by rail – save for part of uninhabitable Scotland.
This week I was invited to join a convention bureau tour bus, but to meet them I had to travel to Hinckley, a town in Leicestershire made famous by 17th Century stockings. As well as being the site of the Battle of Bosworth, one of the most decisive conflicts in history that changed the course of the English Monarchy and set us on the path towards the Reformation that in turn single-handedly changed the course of Christianity across the entire world. But mainly stockings.
Anyway, after my liaison I was required in east London to join up with my Mash TV colleague so we could shoot the EN30 under 30 awards event. This, factored in with where I happen to live, required me to ride no less than 14 trains.
I would begin at my village station in Surrey, Gomshall, and ride the GWR service to Guildford (1), from there I would catch the 10.34 SouthWest Trains express service to Waterloo (2) whereupon I would ride the Northern Line to Warren Street (3) before a quick jaunt on the Victoria Line (4) to St Pancras International.
From St Pancras I would travel with East Midlands Trains to Leicester (5), changing to the brown-coloured CrossCountry franchise to Hinckley (6). Arriving at 13.38, it was a five-minute taxi ride to my destination, followed by a 90-minute coach ride to the picturesque romantic capital of the Midlands, Derby.
From Derby I would jump on the 18.01 back to St Pancras (7), joining the Circle Line to Tower Hill (8) after arrival. A short walk to Tower Gateway was next to pick up the Docklands Light Railway (9) towards Beckton, alighting at Royal Victoria to join the EN30 thing.
After a quick piece to camera and a quick swig of lager it was back to Royal Victoria for a one-stop blast to Canning Town (10). There, I would catch the Jubilee Line back to Waterloo (11), where I would travel with SouthWest Trains again to Woking (12), and change for the short bolt down to Guildford (13), before boarding the last train of the day: the GWR back to lonely Gomshall (14) by 23:37.
It was raining.
Observations, then: Well, there are some places en route to the Midlands that I’m glad we didn’t stop at, perish the thought, and Gomshall could do with a ticket machine, especially since it has been unmanned since 1965.
However, every train I boarded was clean and, save for six minutes with GWR, absolutely on time. I missed my initial Circle Line train, but only had to wait four minutes for the next one.
What is staggering, though, is that for something that was predominantly built in the 19th Century (yes, yes, yes, of course it has been upgraded), there is no part of England, Wales, or inhabited Scotland that is more than a 30-minute drive from a railway station. From my sleepy outpost in the Surrey Hills, I was able to visit Richard III in Hinckley, then travel to east London, and then back to Surrey without really stepping outside. That’s rather amazing.
It was barely an hour from St Pancras to Leicester, at a distance of about 100 miles. Even today that is nothing – it takes me longer to commute 18 miles each morning.
This means it is good news for the conference and meetings industry, too. If your venue is blessed to be within a 15-minute walk or short drive away from a railway station then you have direct access to every major town and city in the land.
What, though, about venues that are slightly further away from railway stations? You may have spotted in the news last week that the East of England Arena has announced a discount fare scheme with Virgin Trains East Coast. This is an excellent idea, as those attending an event at the venue will be able to redeem a 30% discount. Why not try and set up a similar deal?
There is no greater incentive for delegates – who know they have to travel – than a rail fare discount. As a hotel or conference centre who surely won’t be short of a few quid, why not buy, or charter, a couple of 16-seater minibuses? What better service to provide your delegates than a pick-up and drop-off service? Just a thought.
Our trains are clean, reliable, frequent, and connect every part of the country. Even recent government data suggests their punctuality isn’t that bad – with the exception of Southern.
We’re no longer the best at cricket, and we’re no longer inventing jet engines. Let us take our railways to the next level, let us make a deal.
Michael Portillo has shown us where our railways came from, why doesn’t the events industry show us where its going?