The border incident, and London sightseeing

Backdated. Posted 21/9/2017

Time to head back to London for the last few days of our holiday. We packed up our stuff and left the Air BNB flat.

A word about the flat. It had been chosen for its location (walking distance to Brussels Midi/Zuid station), which along with the price, which were its best features.

The layout was curious (one bedroom on the ground floor, stairs up to a small living area/kitchen, more stairs up to a second bedroom and bathroom). Outside the living area was a courtyard, and across from there was another flat, where our host lived.

The facilities themselves were basic, and while I shouldn’t have to, I had ended up spending a few Euros to buy an extra mug and some toilet paper, as it didn’t seem our host had thought to provide enough of either. That’s okay – he was friendly enough, and like I say, it was pretty cheap.

The flat, Brussels

The cat in the flat, Brussels - quite nice actually

And did I mention the cat? I didn’t catch the name or the gender, but he or she would regularly drop past for pats, and was mostly friendly (friendlier than this photo would suggest!), though didn’t like being told to get off the table.

The flat may have been low budget, but it had been a great stay in Brussels. The weather had been mostly kind. We’d overcome enough of the language barrier to manage fine, and personally I found it a bit humbling having to adapt to make myself understood. It was a learning experience. And we’d got to meet my new cousin!

Eurostar leaving Brussels

Brussels to London

Rather than walk, we used up some of the spare rides on the Mobib ticket to catch the Metro back to Brussels Zuid/Midi/South station.

At the station, we joined the queues for admittance into the Eurostar terminal. Through bag security… through the Belgian (exit) checkpoint…

At the UK checkpoint, over on the other queue, one family group from Thailand was getting quizzed by a UK Border Force official. No such problems for us, and we got through quickly.

Then I realised.

I’d left my bag behind. Across the border. In Belgium. Back at the security screening point.

For a split second, I actually considered simply leaving it behind. But no, that would be silly, and could cause all sorts of problems later.

Putting on my most polite, humble voice, I backtracked and told the UK official about it. He thought about it for a second, and said OK, to go back and ask his Belgian colleague. He in turn said sure go and get the bag.

It was right where I left it, thank goodness, and I grabbed it, and they waved me back across the border.

Yikes. At that point I think I’d almost had a heart attack.

After calming down, I ducked into a shop in the departure lounge to spend the last of my Euros on some snacks to eat on the train, while M did the same with her money and bought us some coffees/hot chocolates.

The train was a few minutes late leaving – there had been some disruptions on Eurostar earlier in the day, and looking at the real-time updates, I saw one of the services head of us had been altered to not stop at Lille, in order to make up time. Yes, station skipping.

Eurostar service disruptions

Old Eurostar carriage interior

Our carriage this time was older – gunzels may be able to age it based on the fact that the interior was decorated in brown, and there was no Wi-Fi.

At least the toilet was classy.

Eurostar toilet

View from Eurostar of wind turbines in Belgium

View from Eurostar approaching Calais

When you get near to Calais, the wind turbines in fields, and rickety fences separating the farms from the rail line give way to serious looking security, obviously designed to keep unauthorised people from getting into the tunnel and/or onto the trains.

Apparently the lineside flag in the picture above is part of the in-cab signalling system.

High Speed 1 commemorative stone at St Pancras International Station, London

Back in London

The train zipped along, and arrived in London just a few minutes late.

We’d booked another AirBNB, in west London, and headed there on the Tube – the tiny trains of the “deep tube” Piccadilly Line, with a change to the District Line along the way.

The flat was in Chiswick, near Turnham Green station, chosen for being the right side of town for a quick getaway to Heathrow later in the week, as M needed to head there earlier than the rest of us (a long story involving separate flight bookings).

This flat was less central, more expensive, but in much better condition, with much better facilities. And it was spotless.

View from our flat in London

Escalator warning, London Underground

After dropping off the bags, we got some lunch in a local sandwich place in Chiswick, then caught the Tube back towards central London to explore for a bit.

First stop, Earls Court, where I+J finally got to check out the Police Box just outside the station. According to Google Maps, it’s bigger on the inside.

Personally, I was equally fascinated by the facade of the station entrance, with its beautiful signage.

Earls Court Station, London

Piccadilly Line, London

Next stop, Covent Garden, and the London Transport Museum.

The LT Museum is expensive, but for someone like me who is generally fascinated by public transport, it’s very interesting. (Tickets are actually valid for a year, so if I make it back before July 18th 2018, I can get back in.)

M wisely opted out of the museum, choosing to go for a walk instead, but the rest of us explored the museum for a bit, before we all met up again in the gift shop.

London Transport Museum

London Transport Museum: Why you should travel Metro (Metropolitan Line)

Early London Underground map, London Transport Museum

From Covent Garden we walked down towards the Thames to see what we could spot: the London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses or Parliament – all the sights.

London bus on the Strand

Waterloo Bridge, London

London Eye

Cycle superhighway, London

We walked west along the river. There’s one of the cycle superhighways along there, and it was rush hour by now, and incredibly busy with cyclists zooming along en masse – very impressive to see.

We spotted Cleopatra’s needle, an ancient Egyptian obelisk that is one of a set of three (the others in Paris and New York) stands out. Interestingly, despite the name, it was about 1000 years old in Cleopatra’s lifetime.

Cleopatra's Needle, Embankment, London

We listened out for Big Ben’s chimes – a few weeks later they would stop for some years for refurbishment of the bells.

Big Ben, London

Entrance to Houses of Parliament, London

At Westminster, numerous armed police were on duty – understandable given recent events.

Near Houses of Parliament, London

Westminster Abbey

We went past Westminster Abbey, then walked through St James’s Park towards Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace, London

Near Buckingham Palace, London

Replenishing the Bike Share, London

From there we walked to Victoria Station and hopped back on the Tube to Turnham Green (we were very quickly starting to learn about the various branches of the District Line). We decided to grab fish and chips along the way for dinner.

Taking out cash in London: which currency?

To pay for dinner, I needed to grab some cash from a nearby ATM cashpoint. Something I saw at a few of them in the UK: they offered to convert my UK pounds withdrawal to Australian dollars, rather than let my home bank do it. I had no idea if this was a good deal or not, so I declined.

Anyway, we went back to the flat to eat our fast food and watch some telly before bed.

UK/Belgium holiday in planning

Very busy the last few weeks, which is why the blog has been so quiet.

Long-time readers would know that I like to write about my interstate and overseas holidays in almost excruciating detail. Well brace yourself for another one – I’ve got a European holiday in planning for later this year.

It’s looking like England, Wales, and Belgium, with catching up with various family scattered around the place being a key priority.

It’ll be the first big family holiday in many years, and my first time in Europe this century — previous trips were in 1999 and 1998.

Eurostar hadn’t even opened the last time I was there, so you can be sure we’ll be using it to get to Belgium! It’ll be my first journey on an actual High Speed Rail service (I used the Brussels to Amsterdam high speed “Thalys” in 1998, but it was at regular speed due to flooding) and my first time using Oyster card!

Daniel’s 1998 Europe trip highlights from Daniel Bowen on Vimeo.

Obviously the terrible events in Manchester this week (and previous incidents in London, Brussels and elsewhere) are a concern, but ultimately you can’t cower at home because something might happen.

On the list of touristy things already are various sights in London, Cardiff, Brussels, probably Bath and perhaps Stonehenge or Avebury since we’ll be visiting relatives in that part of the country.

Any must-see suggestions?

More notes as I ponder:

  • London transport accepts most overseas PayPass cards, which will save us buying Oyster cards for everyone.
  • I’m wary of Britrail passes – it sounds like roughly the same cost if you prebook flexible fares a few weeks in advance.
  • We’re looking at Air B’n’b for places we’ll be staying more than a day or two, as it’s useful being able to easily cook some meals and do laundry. Hotels for 1-2 day hops.

    CBD rail capacity myths: Loop tunnel usage, Stations served, the European solution

    In this blog post I hope to address a few myths around Melbourne’s rail system that I’m seeing floating around.

    Train loading at Flagstaff, 5:50pm

    The Loop tunnels have hardly any trains!

    I’ve heard from a couple of sources in the past week (one on mainstream radio) the claim that nothing needs to be done about rail capacity in the CBD, because trains only run in the tunnels every 10 minutes or so.

    It might be true in off-peak hours, but is certainly not true in peak, when most tunnels have a train every 3 minutes or so.

    Looking at evening peak, the hour 5:00-5:59pm, Loop trains departing Flinders Street:

    Clifton Hill tunnel 5:03 5:07 5:10 5:15 5:20 5:23 5:27 5:31 5:36 5:41 5:46 5:50 5:53 5:59
    Caulfield tunnel 5:00 5:06 5:09 5:12 5:15 5:18 5:22 5:24 5:27 5:30 5:35 5:38 5:41 5:44 5:47 5:50 5:53 5:56
    Burnley tunnel 5:01 5:03 5:07 5:10 5:13 5:15 5:17 5:20 5:23 5:26 5:31 5:33 5:36 5:39 5:43 5:48 5:51 5:56
    Northern tunnel 5:02 5:04 5:07 5:10 5:13 5:19 5:22 5:24 5:27 5:30 5:33 5:36 5:39 5:42 5:44 5:47 5:50 5:53 5:59

    (Trains departing Flinders Street running direct have been excluded, of course.)

    The single biggest gap is 6 minutes, and the Clifton Hill tunnel has a few 5 minute gaps (See: PTUA on capacity for Doncaster trains), but for most of the hour, gaps of about 3 minutes are the norm.

    If more trains are to run — and they need to, because some lines are very crowded during peak — something has to be done.

    Potential upgrades include:

    • Measures to speed up dwell (loading) times at stations — such as trains with more doors, indicators to show which carriages of an approaching train are less full, wheelchair “humps”, or where they aren’t possible, platform staff to help with wheelchairs
    • Higher-capacity trains — including more efficient seating layouts to fit more people aboard
    • Running more trains direct to/from Flinders Street, not via the Loop — already the case for Werribee and Sandringham trains, and some Craigieburns and Frankstons and others in peak. For minimal conflicts at junctions, and maximum legibility of the system, all services from particular lines would run direct (see below)
    • Signal upgrades — planned for the Dandenong line; remembering that the highest capacity signalling involves retrofitting the trains as well, so it can be a tad expensive
    • More tracks — this is what the government’s Melbourne Rail Link and the older Metro Rail Tunnel plans offer, in conjunction with much of the above, to separate out Melbourne’s rail network into 6 independent groups of lines

    Other measures include boosting off-peak and shoulder-peak services to encourage more people to travel outside peak hours if they can, and even pricing changes such as off-peak fares (or schemes such as Early Bird — rumoured to be being phased-out from 2015) to encourage this.

    Another crowded train

    But train X won’t serve station Y!

    This isn’t a myth — it’s already a reality, though the ALP has fallen into the trap of claiming Frankston trains won’t serve Richmond (and the sporting precinct) under the Coalition plan. That’s not quite right — Frankston trains will stop at Richmond, but only after running via the CBD.

    It’s true: under both rail tunnel plans, some lines will serve fewer CBD stations than they do at present.

    Under both plans, the Sandringham and Glen Waverley lines won’t serve the City Loop.

    Under the Melbourne Rail Link plan (backed by the Coalition), Frankston and the Camberwell lines won’t serve Flinders Street, but will stop at the other CBD stations (as well as Richmond). Dandenong and Sunbury won’t serve the underground stations, but will stop at Flinders Street and Southern Cross. (The Coalition tends to play this down in their rhetoric.)

    Under the Metro Rail Tunnel plan (backed by Labor), Dandenong and Sunbury trains won’t serve Southern Cross, Flagstaff or Parliament, but will stop at (well, under) Flinders Street and Melbourne Central. (The ALP’s web site doesn’t seem to mention this when criticising the Coalition’s proposal.)

    These are the compromises you end up having to make as the rail system gets busier. Not every train can serve every station, particularly the underground Loop stations, which only have four tracks.

    This process started in the 90s when Sandringham trains came out of the Loop on weekdays, and has continued since then, with Werribee and most Frankston trains, as well as Glen Waverley on weekday mornings.

    Rather than have a mix of trains on each line running direct to Flinders Street and via the Loop, it’s better to have some consistency, and run some lines direct and some via the Loop, for several reasons:

    • It avoids problems with running inconsistent frequencies. If trains alternate between via the Loop and direct, you get very uneven gaps in the timetable, because the running times are so different. It also means many people wait longer than necessary for a train.
    • Consistency is less confusing — witness the daily Frankston timetable confusion between 4-5pm and 6-7pm when stopping trains run half direct, half via the Loop.
    • It means less conflicts at junctions, so fewer delays as trains wait for one another. This improves punctuality, and capacity of the network, allowing more trains to run… which is the point, remember?

    To avoid big problems, connecting services need to run frequently, and interchange needs to be as simple and quick as possible, so people can still quickly get to their destination, even if it involves changing onto another train (or for that matter onto a tram).

    #Myki gates at Flagstaff still not working

    Why not the European solution? Terminate the trains at the CBD edge, and get people to change to a shuttle service?

    In many big European cities, the suburban trains terminate at the edge of the city centre, and people have to change to a “metro” connecting train to complete their journey.

    This makes sense in old cities, where in the mid-1800s, when the trains to the suburbs (and farther afield) were first built, and they couldn’t knock down vast areas of the central city to accommodate them, and they hadn’t figured out how to put them underground yet.

    When they did start building underground railways, initially they were limited in tunnel size, so generally smaller trains were used. Hence the London “tube”, where the trains are quite cramped, and the tunnels only barely bigger than the carriages. So it’s common for people to come into the cities on larger suburban trains, and change to frequent metro services to get around the city centre.

    Tube
    London’s cramped stations and Underground trains — photo by Phil Ostroff on Flickr

    But in Melbourne, and other Australian cities, the railways came as the cities were established, so our large central railway stations such as Flinders Street are already pretty central.

    You really don’t want to have thousands upon thousands of people changing trains unless you have to.

    It would be creating lots of problems, and solving none, to stop the suburban trains at Richmond, North Melbourne and Jolimont and make people change onto a short-distance CBD-only service. Providing adequate interchange and terminating facilities would mean you’d need huge expansion of those stations. And it would be a complete waste of most of the rail capacity and platforms at the existing CBD stations.

    A variation might be running all suburban trains to Flinders Street, and having dedicated City Loop (circle) services. But again, you’d be needlessly making a lot of people change trains who don’t currently have to. And remember one of the reasons for building the Loop in the first place was to reduce pressure on Flinders Street with regard to passenger numbers. With recent growth, its subways and other pedestrian routes are under strain.

    With modern engineering, newer European city railway tunnels have brought those larger suburban and longer distance trains directly into the central city: Paris’s RER is a good example of this, as is London’s Crossrail project now underway.

    There are a lot of good things to admire and copy steal adapt from European railway systems, but making people change to reach the CBD is not one of them.

    Update 17/6/2014: The anonymous Coalition blogger SpringStSource has quoted extensively from parts of this post in an article posted today. It’s worth a read, but I’m wary of the rhetoric from both sides on these issues.

    Video from my trip to Europe in 1998

    15 years ago I got back from my first trip to Europe. Here, finally, are the video highlights.

    Daniel’s 1998 Europe trip highlights from Daniel Bowen on Vimeo.

    Includes England (south-east, London, and York), Scotland (Edinburgh, Inverness, Plockton), Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam.

    Worth noting…

    • The blog posts written at the time are available here: Europe 1998.
    • This was pre-Oyster. Most of the travel around London was old mag stripe travelcards.
    • I can’t help noticing how red my face got when walking in the wilderness of Scotland.
    • Sorry about the picture quality. This was filmed on Video 8, and has come via VHS. This edit excludes most of the footage from visiting my family in England.

    Did some see the London riots coming?

    Terrible scenes in England. What started peacefully seems to have descended into pure opportunism from troublemakers.

    Did anybody see it coming? Well check this fascinating article from The Guardian, a week ago:

    Farewell youth clubs, hello street life โ€“ and gang warfare

    With budget cuts leading to the loss of facilities that kept many inner-city youths occupied, experts predict a rise in crime

    Others worry that a perfect storm of unemployment, the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance and a squeeze on programmes to help disadvantaged youths could bring more than just a rise in crime figures and result in a “lost generation”.

    “Services are not just being taken away from young people, they are being taken from poor young people,” [Professor John Pitts] said.

    “At a simple level that could mean an increase in antisocial behaviour and vandalism.”

    Not that the budget cuts necessarily led directly to the riots of course, but I bet it didn’t help. Take away services like that from areas with serious social problems, and you can see how there might be consequences.

    And it does leave me wondering how much money was saved in cutting services for disaffected youth, and how much more will be spent by the government bringing London and other cities back under control.

    People are responsible for their own actions of course. But whether you consider these types of schemes to be improving community ties, bettering people, or merely a distraction from more destructive activities, they would appear to be a better investment than was apparent to those who cut them.

    * * *