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Secret Passage

In which we look for some Parisian history


Every so often, search requests come in for things like “disused stations on the Paris Metro”. I’mk not entirely sure why, because this site doesn’t have very much content at all on that topic. All there is, in fact, is this post from a few years ago, which wasn’t really about disused Paris metro stations at all: it was more about all the various interconnection lines and mysterious secret underground depots that you can see from a passing train.

When I was in Paris the other week, though, I kept an eye out. Because there are the odd one or two disused stations on the Metro, even if there are fewer than on the London Underground. I kept my eyes open, and I spotted a couple.

Firstly, if you head north along Line 5, across the Seine and through Quai de la Rapée station, you will find that the line quickly disappears underground on its way to Bastille station.* Once in the tunnel, well-lit and easily spotted, there is a stretch of broad station tunnel, heavily graffitied like almost everything on the Paris metro. This is the remains of Arsenal station: off the top of my head, the only Paris Metro station to share a name with one on the London Underground.

Secondly, turn around back to Gare d’Austerlitz, then head westward on Line 10. Past Odéon, there’s a complex network of underground tunnels linking Line 10 to various other routes; the modern line has a complex history. And somewhere in-between all the various connections, past Mabillon station, there is another secret. Croix Rouge station, originally the terminus of the line. It’s harder to spot than Arsenal, but it is there.

Hopefully, then, if people come here looking to spot disused Parisian underground stations, here are a couple of hints. If you want to see what they look like inside, there are photos on the web, of course: where doesn’t have photos on the web nowadays? Alternatively, you might prefer it the other way: sit on the Metro, ignore the buskers and the beggars, and look out the window for a flash of abandoned platforms.

* incidentally, foundations of the original Bastille fortress are visible on the Line 5 platforms at that station.

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High Speed News

In which we look at trains and the money behind them


Today’s big news story: the East Coast rail franchise is to be temporarily taken into state hands, because the company running it, National Express, has decided that they can’t make the huge wodge of cash that they have promised to pay. Which, to be honest, many many people could have told you was a little unlikely.

The East Coast route has always been seen as a bit of a cash cow, ever since it has been operated by a single company. Back in the 1930s the LNER, the aforesaid first company to own the route from end to end, was struggling somewhat, as most of its profits came from servicing the declining heavy industries of the North-East. So, it negotiated itself away from the non-compete restrictions which hampered its London-Scotland timetable,* and started to introduce faster, record-breaking, headline-grabbing expresses. They introduced the longest regular non-stop train service in the world, and the fastest type of steam engine in the world; and introduced innovations such as at-seat radio services, and the “in-flight movie”. The route has stayed at the forefront of speed, technology and publicity ever since, and at several times has featured the fastest trains in the country.**

By the time privatisation came along, the East Coast route was one of the few profitable rail services in the country. It was quickly grabbed, by Sea Containers, the shipping company which had already bought British Rail’s Sealink shipping line. And everything went smoothly, for some time, because the route did indeed make plenty of money.

In this decade, though, there were problems. As the line was seen as a cash cow, other companies started running competing services over what was already a very crowded and busy route; and their franchise payment went up to £130million per year. Sea Containers tried to bring a court case arguing that there wasn’t enough room for anybody else’s trains on their line, but the case failed. The company started hinting that it was having trouble making money on the route, and that its position was financially unsustainable. In October 2006 the company filed for bankruptcy protection in the USA, and told the British government that they would walk away from the East Coast route if not allowed to renegotiate their contract. A month later, the government told Sea Containers that their franchise was being withdrawn.

In the auction for the rights to run the route from 2007 onwards, Sea Containers played little part, holding a 10% stake in a joint bid made in the names of Virgin and Stagecoach. The winner, though, was National Express. They promised to pay £1.4 billion in total, to operate the route from 2007 through to 2015. Rather more, in other words, than the £130 million per year that Sea Containers had had trouble meeting. You have to wonder what was going on in their decision-making. It must have been obvious to them that the line would have trouble generating that much money. Did they really think they had enough spare cash elsewhere to prop it up with?

It’s not surprising at all, then, that they haven’t managed to keep the line running. It’s more surprising, though, that it apparently took National Express 18 months to realise that their sums were a bit off. Never mind the recession: passenger figures were already falling well before National Express took over, which was partly why Sea Containers had trouble. Maybe they thought they could get things to turn around faster. Evidently, though, they made a mistake somewhere. That still leaves this, though, as one of the more predictable news stories of this part of the decade.

* ever since the mid-1890s, the East Coast and West Coast companies had had a minimum-time agreement restricting the point-to-point average speed of their trains to around 50mph, following the dangerous “Race To The North” competitions of 1895.

** For the past 20 years almost it has had its own specially-designed trains which are capable of 140mph, until recently beating every other domestic train in Britain – but for the whole time, it’s been in the slightly silly position of having a top speed limit of 125mph, leaving that speed advantage unusable.

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Photo post of the week

In which we photograph some models


This week, it’s mostly been model trains. Not my own – I don’t have any – but at an exhibition.

Station and carriage, "Lydham Heath" Mixed train, "Lydham Heath" BCR cattle wagon, "Lydham Heath"

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Photo post of the week

In which we go out in the snow


Another day with no morning bus services, and the roads gridlocked. I walked K to work, taking the camera with me, and watched a lorry get stuck on the hilly part of Bedminster Road. Trying to get towards Ashton, it stopped in a queue of traffic, then realised it couldn’t get started again without risking sliding back down the hill. It sat there, impotent, with its hazard lights flashing, as everyone else tried to drive round either side of it.

And then, I nearly broke a leg trying to take photos of the local station. Slipping at the top of the stairs, I grabbed the handrail frantically as my feet disappeared from underneath me. Best to stick to taking photos from the bridge, I thought.

Snowy industrial estate, Bedminster
Parson St station in snow

At least the train that came was – to a train geek – quite an interesting one. 2D04, from Taunton to Bristol, one of the services on the Taunton-Bristol-Cardiff route that runs with retro 1970s carriages restored to their original condition, although the engines are rather newer.

Class 67 no. 67016 hauling Mk3 carriages at Parson St station
Class 67 no. 67016 hauling Mk3 carriages at Parson St station

And finally: I’m sure it says in the Bible that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Before we went to bed last night, we looked out of the window to see it snowing again, the street covered in a fresh pristine carpet. We couldn’t resist getting dressed again, and going out for another walk with the camera.

Night snow scene, Bedminster

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Photo post of the week

In which I spot a train


We discovered, the other week, that occasionally, just sometimes, if you drag yourself out of bed early on a Saturday morning and get down to our local railway station (1 train an hour if you’re lucky, to Weston-super-Mare), you can see something a bit more interesting than normal…

"Torbay Express" passing Parson St Station "Torbay Express" passing Parson St Station
Two "Torbay Expresses" passing Parson St Station Two "Torbay Expresses" passing Parson St Station

If one of the trains had been travelling a few seconds later or earlier, I’d have got a great photo of the equivalent 1930s and 1970s express engines passing each other.* As it was, the modern train is a blob in the distance. Ah well. Maybe I’ll get up early tomorrow too.

* With the added, slightly confusing detail, that both of the trains involved (not the engines) have the same name.

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Photo post of the week

In which we visit the Bodmin & Wenford Railway


This week: it’s mostly trains.

Bodmin General engine shed, Bodmin & Wenford Railway Bodmin General station, Bodmin & Wenford Railway 4247 running on to its train, Bodmin General, Bodmin & Wenford Railway
4247 leaving Bodmin General, Bodmin & Wenford Railway Cab of 4247, Bodmin & Wenford Railway 33110 on shed, Bodmin & Wenford Railway

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Steam trains

In which we visit Levisham


A spare weekend: we went wandering, in the car, and on foot. We drifted through the moorland village of Levisham, as untouched a village as you’ll find in Yorkshire, with one road wandering through it across a broad green. Ambling downhill, we reached the railway station. We watched a train pull in, and shunt about, great clouds of steam rising in the December cold.

Prowling around the station, we discovered its Artist In Residence, Christopher Ware, in his studio. We chatted a little while, and studied his prints of bucolic trains. He can’t have many visitors on a day like that; hopefully we were a welcome distraction for a few minutes.

Levisham station Levisham station Levisham station
Levisham signal box Pulley wheels

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Review Time

In which music and trains make us happy


Every month I promise myself to start Blogging Properly again, and every time I’m tired.

I still haven’t mentioned much about last Saturday: a mysterious midwinter pop festival, somewhere on a train between Ambergate and Pye Bridge.* We arrived early, and lurked around the railway station warming our hands by the fire.

First band. The Deirdres are some of the most enthusiastic people I’ve seen on the stage for a long time; they haven’t become cynical enough to hide their enthusiasm yet. They bounce about between different instruments, fight over the percussion, banter with each other and put themselves down, but their joyfulness comes through in the music. They’ll accidentally start Demo Mode on their Casio and apologise for it sounding better than they do; and Russell Deirdre has a picture of a steam train on his glockenspiel case, which has to be a good thing.

Second band. The Poppycocks have applied a lot more polish to their work, and have turned the amps up a bit whilst the audience weren’t looking. They’re bright and cheerful, with a hint of 1960s bubblegum and brocaded jackets; and waste no time getting The Deirdres to work on a few organised dance moves. “This song’s called The History Teacher, it’s about, er, a history teacher … so maybe for this one your actions can be books, turning pages, things like that.” Miles Poppycock had a badge on his lapel that he’d snaffled from somewhere around the railway station. Finding myself stood by him later on, I sneaked a quick look: it said “I’ve been on the Santa Special!”**

Headliners: The Icicles had come a long long way, indeed, so much so that everyone in the audience was invited to sign a Christmas card for them. As we were lurking around the gig early (see above), we got to sign it first! So if any Icicles are reading this, we’re the couple who had plenty of space to write long messages like “Thanks for coming so far”.*** Their tour manager, on the merch stall, is a very friendly chap too. We walked off the train into the empty marquee, to find them in place and almost bursting to play. “Do we just start? Is anyone else coming?” “Nah, everyone else is staying on the train,” I said, and after a few seconds’ confusion they kicked into their first track.

As for the music: it’s the sort of thing that I’d never say no to, sweet vocal harmonies over jangling guitars, and good enough for me to buy the albums straight after the gig. The song about Gretchen’s cat***** was a bit too sweet and romanticised, at least if her cat is anything like mine, but you might call it a kind of romantic lullaby. I wanted to mention the music first, because every other review of the Icicles probably mentions their matching and home-made stage outfits first – in fact, I enjoyed myself during the first two bands by spotting members of the Icicles, by spotting the hems of their stage outfits peeking out under their winter jackets. That’s not important, though – it’s important as part of the experience,****** but not compared to the music. The whole experience – dark winter cold, the 1950s steam train, the fire-lit footplate – gives the festival an amazing atmosphere; but the music is what we were there for.

Other people who were probably there: The Autumn Store, and this chap on Flickr.*** I was planning to take the camera myself – but discovered too late that all my batteries were dead. Arse.

* It was Kim’s idea to go. Thank you!

** This is a British railway museum, and it’s December. Of course there’s going to be a Santa Special.

*** Or words to that effect

**** I checked very thoroughly to see if he’d caught either of us in the background anywhere. He hasn’t.

***** I was a bit misled, as I saw a song called “Gedge” on the setlist and thought: “ooh, a song about The Wedding Present.” But, no, Gretchen Icicle’s cat is named after David Gedge instead.

****** The Deirdres, too, had themed stage outfits, customised appliqué t-shirts with their names on; and they make them to sell to the fans, too. The Icicles sell badges made from their fabric offcuts.

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Readers’ letters

In which the readers speak up and demand photos


Here at Symbolic Towers, we pay attention to our readers. If they send in tips, we pass them on. Mr E Shrdlu of Clacton writes…

The Plain People of the Internet: You say what? You had a letter? From a reader? Whose name is E Shrdlu? Honestly?

Me: Shush there. Be quiet and listen.

The Plain People of the Internet: If you say so. But don’t expect us to believe it.

… E Shrdlu of Clacton, who writes:

People who liked Friday’s post may be interested in…

The Plain People of the Internet: You mean, people who like long posts about the history of the London Underground? When posts like yesterday’s get a much better reader reaction? What are you thinking about?

Me: Come on there, stop interrupting. And since when have I been bothered about reader reaction, in any case?

The Plain People of the Internet: We’re only saying. Offering a tidbit ourselves, you could say.

… may be interested in the book London’s Secret Tubes by Emmerson and Beard, which goes into all that stuff. At book length.

The Plain People of the Internet: Now, we wouldn’t mind seeing photos of that beautiful Yorkshire scenery you were wittering on about. That “unutterable beauty” stuff.

Me: It was “unassuming beauty”. And I don’t have any – the car would have rolled down the hill. Carnage.

The Plain People of the Internet: My god, that’s terrible. The joke, we mean.

Me: If you’re so plural, shouldn’t that be “our god?”. The best I can do is photos of trains down in the mist-filled dale. And why shouldn’t there be real people called E Shrdlu, from Clacton?

The Plain People of the Internet: Flann O’Brien would sue, were he still alive.

Grosmont station Grosmont loco yard Inside Deviation shed, Grosmont Train passing Grosmont yard

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Life in front of the telly

In which we get a bit pedantic


I was expecting to be disappointed by the ending of Life On Mars, and, of course, I was. There was no way, to my mind, that they could wrap everything up and leave everyone happy, because too many contradictory things had gone before.* The ending I had in my head was, to my mind, a better one, but that of course is because it’s the sort of ending I like.

Still, at least, the ending was a lot braver than many that could have been written – braver for the BBC to produce, I mean, not necessarily braver for the writers to write. And the “it was all in his head all along” resolution is a handy get-out clause for all the little anachronistic niggles that pedants like me notice – there’s no way a Victorian stonemason would have used nicknames like “Sam” and “Vic” on a tombstone; the game of noughts and crosses on the TV test card was wrong; and those maroon railway vans were 10 years out of date for ’73, they should have been blue to match the engine.** Like I said with Doctor Who the other week: it’s all entertainment, and we shouldn’t try to read to much into it. There’s no point searching for hidden messages, Baconian-style, when the writer is here to tell us there aren’t any.***

* specifically, episode one of series two, where the audience is at least led to believe that Sam’s behaviour in “1973” can radically alter the present day.

** which was, at least, pretty much correct for the period, albeit not entirely

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