diamond geezer

 Monday, April 08, 2013

HAMMERSMITH & CITY: Down the line

In any book of Great Railway Journeys of the World, the pink run from Hammersmith to Barking need not appear. The line's not especially scenic, the Victorian vaults of Baker Street excepted, and the journey's faster by District line instead. Plus the trains are a bit 'meh', having been left to decay somewhat safe in the knowledge that aircon replacements are imminent. So I thought I'd liven up my journey by taking one of the new S7 trains, which is easier said than done because only one or two of these are currently in use. But I had a hunch where to be and when, and hey presto the shiny walk-through train duly presented itself at Hammersmith bang on time.

Hammersmith's three platforms are a bit of a shunt and a shuffle throughout the day. Freshly-arrived trains hang around for only a few minutes before a fresh driver wanders down the steps from the depot, settles into the cab and prepares to vacate. There's just enough time for a cleaner to shuffle through the carriages, and for the odd pigeon to hop aboard and then think better of it. "Go on time!!" screams a driver-facing notice at the front of the platform, to "help finish on book more often" and "improve layover/meal relief times". Our driver departs promptly, heading north in the gap behind a Circle line service, past umpteen trains laid over in the Hammersmith depot. Train T236, all stations to Barking, is on its way.

The platforms at Goldhawk Road station have yellow highlights on blocks and pillars. A West Indian family of three (plus a pushchair) bundle aboard before the doors close, and plonk themselves down around me. It must be their first ride on an S7 train, and they're a little in awe. "Oh yeah it's right through," they say, "you can see right through!" They would have sat up the front, but the doors up the front don't open at this station, and they're afraid they won't open at the next. Shepherd's Bush Market is the only station on the Underground named after retail, but it's Westfield's giant roof that dominates the horizon. That and the BBC's collection of satellite dishes pointing at the world from what is no longer Television Centre. Farewell.

Our modern train suits the modern station at Wood Lane, where the 'priority seat' on the platform has been angled so that anyone might slip off. We soar over the West Cross Route to Latimer Road, which is brown in the same way that Goldhawk Road is yellow. It's not a good look. Then we nudge up against the Westway at vehicle level, its 1960s builders having worked out that the least offensive way to drive a motorway through North Kensington was to run it on stilts alongside a railway.

Passengers at Ladbroke Grove have an 'Information and assistance' window to help them while they wait, possibly because there are no next train indicators anywhere down this end of the line, or possibly because they're more needy than average. The train slopes down to pillar level beneath the Westway, not gorgeous, and eventually level with the Great Western Railway alongside. Westbourne Park has charmingly striped iron pillars, and a lot of passengers who've not bothered to spread out down the platform so crowd like sheep into the front of the train. By Royal Oak it's Crossrail construction that dominates, with ranks of conveyor belts and a hillock of sludgy clay adding to the station's depressingly quarantined demeanour.

I'll not dwell too long on the run from Paddington to Farringdon because I blogged in depth about the world's first underground railway back in January. It being a Sunday afternoon, this stretch is the only busy bit of the journey. Passengers pile aboard with shopping and suitcases, choosing to stop and stand where they enter rather than walking up to the front of the train where there are invisible seats.

Barbican's still a remarkably open station, with a signal box more suited to some rural halt and two unwanted former Thameslink platforms. At Moorgate those spare platforms are still decorated for the 150th anniversary steam runs, which is nice, if a trifle redundant. A building site overhangs the line at Liverpool Street, beyond which is the first point along the entire journey where it actually matters which line's train you're aboard. Our H&C veers east just as Aldgate hoves into view, rattling past the backs of Metropolitan terminators, then pausing and queuing to slip into Aldgate East instead.

A free run through the East End follows. Whitechapel is no longer where this train terminates, indeed the two central platforms no longer exist except as a Crossrail building site. This is where the demographic aboard our train changes, with the majority of passengers from this point on of Asian descent. It's back into tunnel for Stepney Green, which stops one loudmouth yakking into his phone, and the carriage collectively smiles. Mile End is an easy cross-platform interchange, except the adjacent Central line train doesn't wait for us to pull in, and we don't wait for its successor.

I have to resist alighting at Bow Road, which would be my instinct as a local resident. That means I rarely ride the next stretch to Bromley-by-Bow, which has an excellent view of Canary Wharf and its towers, plus a brief glimpse of the Olympic Stadium lurking behind some flats. Residential uplift pauses as we cross the Lea, including the only undeveloped patch of land on the entire journey just past Three Mills. And then we roll into West Ham, not the ideal station for the football ground either present or future, especially now the Olympic footbridge has been completely dismantled.

We bypass Plaistow's newly-redundant platform 3, its mothballing a blessed relief to non-psychic locals seeking the next westbound train, and rumble on between unexciting estates. Earlier in the journey passengers were carrying designer bags and suitcases, but by Upton Park it's more Wilkinson carriers and unbranded blue. At East Ham three station staff are fussing over a bench, because Sunday afternoons aren't exactly over-stretching round here.

And finally, the long haul into Barking. The tracks split either side of the c2c depot (still with a couple of Christmas decorations up), although H&C trains always run to the north into the terminating platform. We wait at signal FF59 until that's been vacated, then glide slowly in. On this new train many passengers have taken the opportunity to walk all the way up to the front to get off, because even then it's still quite a hike up to the station exit. It's taken almost exactly an hour to get here to Barking, five minutes slower than the District would have done it.

Don't expect to find Michael Portillo on the run to Barking any time soon.

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