Simon Calder: News flashes for UK rail travellers

The man who pays his way

The picture of the week? One that appeared on the National Rail Enquiries website on Tuesday morning. From the perspective of the traveller in Britain, it summed up the summer in a single strike. Lightning scythes through the doom-laden skies above Manchester to wreak havoc at one of the nation's most important stations.

“A signalling problem caused by lightning is disrupting trains to and from Manchester Piccadilly,” lamented the website. “It destroyed some critical pieces of railway signalling equipment.”

While Zeus was zeroing in on the North-west, other gods of thunder were busy elsewhere in the kingdom. A bolt at Dunbar did for East Coast Trains. In Essex, no passengers could change at Manningtree for the Continent. And travellers on England's loveliest railway, from Settle to Carlisle, were stopped in their tracks by a jolt “in the Kirkby Stephen area”.

Other weather-related delays were available. Bard news: while others may have stolen Stratford-upon-Avon's thunder, Shakespeare's home town was cut off from Birmingham after flooding of tempestuous proportions. And shockingly, no “Up” trains could run on the North Downs line between Redhill and Tonbridge because of “fallen electricity cables”.

How adept we are as a nation at switching from one meteorological muddle to another. Six months ago to the day, a headline in The Independent read: “Heathrow cancels 100 flights on second day of snow chaos – and one in five will be cancelled tomorrow”.

In the heatwave before this week's storm, the story was about Britain's road network turning to treacle. While Californian motorists were cheerfully crossing Death Valley on Highway 190 during the hottest spell for a century, the lovely Pembrokeshire resort of Tenby got all snarled up when the A4218 crumbled in the heat. There were reports of highways melting from Cornwall to Yorkshire. A viscous rumour? Not according to Highways magazine: “With temperatures topping 30C, the heat is causing the bitumen in some roads to soften and rise to the top,” I learn from the journal's “Highways on Fridays” column. “This makes the surface sticky and more susceptible to pressure from heavy vehicles which can make parts of it sink, resulting in a ridge-and-furrow effect.”

Some will conclude that the nation has, once again, been found out as hopelessly unprepared. But I suggest that we are rationally under-prepared. We are lucky to live in a benign climate, without the extremes that characterise many other parts of the world. Our transport infrastructure relies on moderation (augmented by sticky tape and string from time to time), and most of the time we get away with it.

No Harborough from Scarborough

While the roads warped in the heat last weekend, the trains buckled under the strain of people wanting to go to the seaside for the day. Saturday's 9am from London Paddington to the Somerset resort of Weston-super-Mare set off on time but got slower with every stop – five minutes late at Reading, 15 at Swindon, etc. Meanwhile, on the London-Brighton line, the refrain from public-address announcements was “full and standing”.

Older readers may recall that on days when a surge of extra passengers was expected, relief trains were deployed to help cope. Not in these privatised times, according to what I have found. Southern, which runs express trains between London and Brighton, does not use them. Indeed, I could find only a couple of train operators who showed some respect for those of us who seek the sea at the first sight of the sun, and actually laid on more capacity.

Arriva Trains Wales has added extra carriages to trains serving the north and south coasts, but East Midlands Trains takes the prize with a Saturday seaside special connecting stations such as Luton, Market Harborough and Chesterfield with the pearl of Yorkshire's coast, Scarborough.

The train starts out from St Pancras at 6.37am and takes four-and-a-half hours to reach Scarborough. But before you take the Midland mainline to Marine Drive, be warned that the return train takes only four hours, its acceleration achieved by speeding straight through Chesterfield, Market Harborough and Luton.

Summer inter-city is slower abroad

Before you sigh about the intricacies and inadequacies of transport in Britain, consider that Amtrak trains between Boston and Washington, as well as through Pennsylvania, were slowed down by 20 minutes last weekend because of extreme heat in the north-east United States.

The latest punctuality figures for the daily Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth in Texas show that the train ran on time on only four days last month.

Finally, a message from Lonely Planet co-founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who are just back from the Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Moscow (not calling at Luton, Market Harborough or even Chesterfield).

“The trip kicked off with the Chinese government requisitioning, at the last minute, the chartered train from Beijing to the Mongolian border. We ended up on a 14-hour overnight bus trip instead.”

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