Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Angelico Austrian Adventure - Landing in London

Nothing much happened that flight. I was stuck in the overhead locker the whole time because the humans were watching movies and eating. We landed a few minutes early and started to navigate Heathrow...

The airport itself is much like any other airport, but bigger. From my vantage point inside my case, under a towel and a coat, and inside Midga's backpack I had a perfect view. NOT. But I could tell by the pace of the walking that the humans were running low on battery power.

Getting through customs and immigration is relatively easy, and we head to the baggage carousel. Since we'd been close to last off the plane there weren't many items left so we had no trouble grabbing them and getting out. Now, which way to trains?

Unfortunately the Heathrow Express doesn't seem to realise that planes land at all hours of the day, so the information booth was closed. 6am on a Sunday morning, people should be at home in bed! But there was enough printed information there that we could see the express wasn't what we were looking for.

The tube station was at the opposite end of the airport. The humans bought Oyster cards (I travel free), which are just like a Myki but done right. Response time through the gates is instantaneous. It even handles zones correctly.

The train is waiting in the platform as we approach and the PIDS says three minutes. We jump aboard. Midga bumps his head. Ah, the Tube loading gauge! Heathrow is on the Piccadilly line, and there's three different stations for the various terminals. They're in a weird kind of loop and spur, which I don't understand and don't really want to because it goes right against Jarrett Walker's concept of lines that don't split. Let's just say it seems like a good idea not to go into Terminal 5 and expect a high frequency tube connection.

Shelly has given us very precise directions for how to change trains, get the bus from the station and find her house. It's pretty painless despite the spiderweb layout of the tube - obviously once you know the system it's just as easy to use as a radial one. We turn up later than we expected due to taking it easy on the trip, and the humans eat and gasbag until it's time for church.

We take the bus to church, just because we can. It's a beautiful old stone and brick church, with a modern interior grafted into the main hall. There are about 50 people there, and a good mix of ages. The minister has four children, including a teenage daughter who knows how to break up squabbles between the two youngest. I like that in a teenager.

After the service Shelly gets Midga a trip up into the bell tower. It's had OH&S equipment added but all the solid timber flooring (with holes cut into it for the bell rope) and grilled windows are of the classic style. Midga chickens out of going past the second level because the ladder isn't attached and the last thing Asha's arm needs is a nasty wrench from trying to stop her darling husband from falling. But he was wearing his "I'm in England looking at old stuff" grin when he came down.

He was on such a high that he told the girls he'd be delighted to go shopping and even carry their bags. Well, if he'd decided not to he'd have regretted it, because as shopping trips go this was one of the most exciting since the time Mum's purse got pinched when she was shopping for whatever birthday party that was.

Asha wanted to go to Sainsburys for lunch, just for the experience of eating at a cafe-in-a-supermarket. As we got to Sainsburys a security guard told us it was closed. That's not normal. Midga postulated that it must have been a bomb threat and Shelly said he was such an Australian for thinking the worst but not panicking about it. We were told half an hour would see the situation under control so we took a stroll around.

About 20 minutes later we were back, and asked the security guards how long. Now they said they couldn't put a time on it. Hm, that means they haven't found the package yet. We were just mulling that over when the evacuation alarm sounded - the whole corner of the shopping centre was being closed and we had to move. Now would be a good time, please.

Well, if mountain won't come to Mohammed, the road will pass under the chicken. So our heroes girded their loins and used the power of their leg muscles to force the earth to turn until another supermarket-with-a-cafe was in front of them. What could be sweeter? They shopped for snacks for the trip and for general groceries. They were just about to order food from the cafe when that evacuation alarm went off again! The whole shopping centre was closed off. Someone used the word "fire" on the PA, which Midga was always taught never to do because it causes panic, but surely if a fire at the other end of the centre had lasted an hour we'd know about it? Bomb threat and gas leak remain the best theories.

The footpaths outside the shopping centre were packed like New Years Eve, and the bus bay was so crowded they couldn't safely move a vehicle around, so they diverted the buses to a nearby stop. Eventually we navigated our way through and found a place for lunch. It was a Middle Eastern restaurant, which meant they had every combination of meats and different spices and herbs to cook them in. I was prepared to be bored, like I normally am at meal times, but the conversation was fascinating.

We headed home and the conversation continued to be fascinating. It was one of those conversations which segued from one topic to the next without even a hint of a pause. It ranged from the antics of some of the children from church to the merits of studying psychology. Nap time, still talking. Dinner time, still talking. Bed time, still talking. I guess I shouldn't complain, it's like when I've been offline for ages and need to synchronise. Eventually they turned in, leaving me to charge both phones from my USB ports.

So they woke up this morning, an hour early because Midga's phone got the daylight savings thing wrong. Get up, pack up, get on the bus, and head for London Victoria. Asha managed to damage one of her feet by trying to kick a hole in Midga's Officeworks bag, so she's limping and can't curl her toes. Great timing. Still, they get to the bus stop and cram onto a peak hour bus without too much trouble.

The tube is another matter. It's standing room only when we get on, and gets toward sardine tin proportions as we pass through Sloane Square and South Kensington stations. Yep, really. Luckily the hoarde that got on weren't ravenous, because we want our penny ice and cold meat for the trip.

We thought the bus station would be fairly close to the British Rail station but it really wasn't. A local told us it was a five minute walk, but when you've got a broken toe five minutes of walking translates into fifteen minutes of hobbling in agony. Midga was doing the whole "in sickness and in health" thing by carrying all the luggage (some of the time) so he was hobbling a bit too. Luckily we got to the right place with about two minutes to spare.

The bus was delayed... traffic had been bad and there was some other sort of delay further up the line, so it was more than an hour after departure time before we got underway. The conductor was very apologetic about it, and the company had told a different bus to do all the other pickups and meet us at Dover, so we had a chance to catch up. It sure didn't feel like we were doing all that well, what with the inner London traffic and tiny streets, and I wondered why on earth a tour bus would want a central London pickup point. Why not just go round the ring road and get people to take the train? But anyway, by the time we got onto the main motorway that leads to Dover we were back on time, so we were able to stop at a place called Medway Service for lunch. It was really just a truck stop, but the British like to name things.

We did have one pickup in Canterbury. To get to the bus stop we had to go past a massive stone wall with battlements and everything! I wonder if it was the official residence of the Archbishop, dating back to when the church had an army of its own.

Dover is amazing. As we came in (down a road with a 5% grade with lots of warnings saying "All trains stop to pin down brakes", or rather, "Test brakes, stay in low gear") we could see a massive parking area, container terminal, multiple ferry loading points, port buildings, and towering over it all were the famous white cliffs. Quite a sight.

As we're now leaving England (for a bit, anyway) I'll take this opportunity to talk about the buses and the tube.

Buses run at real frequencies most of the time. They all have either Turn Up And Go or clockfaced timetables, and the routes are as simple as possible in an old world city with streets going on all sorts of angles. They're really red, and they're really double deckers, and everything else about them is just like a modern bus anywhere else.

The tube is everything I've been told about it. The routes are designed to garner cash for PFYs from French tourists, but the frequency is great. There's a lot of limitations of technology which make the customer experience worse than it should be - the most obvious is the limited loading gauge on some lines which means they have a different platform height. Where different lines share the same tracks and platforms this is a problem, so it seems the platforms alternate in height and the trains have annoucements to mind the gap at just about every station.

Signalling is single aspect, which probably doesn't matter since there's extra tracks for expresses so everything is running to the same stopping pattern.

There's quite a bit of distance between stations in a lot of places, which I wasn't expecting. I guess when you have an underground system a station costs a bomb so you don't overdo it. The top speed of the trains is pretty good (I estimated 90km/h in a few places) so the station spacing means we can go longish distances pretty quickly. It's just a bit weird looking at the map and thinking "Oh, only two stops to London Victoria, we'll be there in a few minutes", and then keep barrelling along for ten minutes or more.

There's obviously been extra tracks and platforms in a lot of places, and the reservation is just being used to store bags of gravel, or even just as a rubbish dump. When we're looking at acquiring people's houses for space to put in vital infrastructure it's heartbreaking to see it just going to waste.

The trains themselves are very well designed. Their doors are quite fast, their seats are mainly along the sides for maximum capacity, and they accelerate out of stations like a good metro should. The interiors are nothing special. There isn't as much graffiti and vandalism as we're used to, but the general grubbiness and shameless internal ads are the same.

In short: Melbourne can learn a lot from London, but it's far from perfect and there is no reason to hold it up as an example to follow. Under no circumstances should anyone advocate (to take a completely random example) limiting certain designs of train to certain lines "because they do it like that in London". Not looking at anyone in particular, PTV.

I'm speaking to you now from a patch of water just off the coast of Dover. But that's a topic for another post.


Stephen Angelico said...

I thought the London Underground was naerly 100% cut-and-cover. I didn't think people's houses were aquired unnecessarily.

Michael Angelico said...

I meant we in Oz are desperately looking for space for infrastructure and acquisition is the only way.

Talldad said...

Re: "massive stone wall with battlements and everything"

Clippy, you need a UK dictionary and you should find "crenellations"