1828 Birmingham International – Manchester Piccadilly

24 Apr

Nose job

Unlike other entries in my commuting series, this piece really is being written as it happens, as opposed to a remembrance piece written the following day. I’m on the 1828 Virgin West Coast service from Birmingham International to Manchester Piccadilly, and we’re on final approaches to the caverns of New Street, where it will depart at 1843. For just over two years of commuting to the West Midlands, this journey has been my home away from home – yet come December I shall be homeless and adrift, at the mercy of a new timetable.

It’s a strange journey this one, full of variety. Besuited businessmen get first dibs, returning home from their meetings in London, evidenced by the large number of free papers from the metropolis that lie abandoned on tables. The pin-striped ranks thin as we head north, to be replaced by central Birmingham office workers and shoppers at the Bullring. Trade shows at the NEC will often add some variety to the passenger load, be it young fashionistas from the Clothes Show Live, or the Cheshire set returning home with cloth bags laden of fine foods and wines. Most lightweights will have gone by the time we reach Wolverhampton, with only the lucky few middle-distance commuters to take full advantage of the massive over-capacity onwards to our destination, Piccadilly.

Empty

This is the return leg of the weekdays lone journey between Manchester and London via Birmingham. Timed too late to offer any meaningful capacity boost between Birmingham and Manchester, it’s the dreg-end of the commute home – yet ironically offers a whole nine coach Pendolino train instead of a four or five coach Voyager that operate the peak-time commute home to Stafford and Stoke. There’s certainly a wider range at the Shop than this route normally receives, and a whole slew of surplus seats.

There are those who dislike Pendolinos, who find their small windows and tilting body profile somewhat claustrophobic. They’re probably right when it comes to the Sunday afternoon leisure rush – but put them on this service in the height of summer and I’m sure they could be persuaded otherwise as the sun hangs low in the distance over Jodrell Bank and the train rattles along on the straight between Congleton and Macclesfield at a fair old speed. And although the view over the mid-Cheshire plain is obscured by darkness in the depth of winter, the most spectacular light show can be viewed from coach C as pantograph arcs strobe the trackside furniture.

Sunset over Cheshire

So this is my train – I have a strange sense of ownership over it. I am peeved if I have to share my table for four with anybody else. I grin and chat to the man in the Shop. I luxuriate. Hot bacon roll and a half bottle of red wine? Magnifique. Headphones allow use of the at-seat audio entertainment – provided one is at a functional socket – which seems much more interesting than a predictable old MP3 player. Sufjan Stevens; Mark Ronson; Spoon; the lamented Mr Scruff and Treva Whateva’s Hotpot radio channel and its replacement Guilty Pleasures – things I may otherwise have missed, or at least been unfashionably late arriving at, stuck in my Burnage cocoon.

A fortnight ago, there were a couple of Mancunians on the train who were heading home to watch the match. They had taken the wrong train in London, this one – mine – the magical mystery tour of Coventry. The elder gent had misplaced his mobile phone, so I offered to ring his number. So there we were, the three of us, scrabbling around on our hands and knees in the gangway, trying to find the source of the ringtone in an assortment of luggage. I couldn’t quite imagine this scene taking place on one of the earlier commuter services. They thanked me in the traditional manner, with a can of Carling from their multipack, and then went on to show me some interesting pictures of a young lady. I couldn’t help but smile, and wished them well as we arrived at the terminus.

A commuter writes

The end of the journey, two hours later. There’s a sense of finality as the remaining passengers disembark in dribs and drabs along the length of the platform. And it won’t be long until our routine reaches the buffers either. What to do when it is gone? The Winter 2008/09 Cross Country timetable suggests either the 1831 or 1856 service from New Street. The first doesn’t operate via International and so won’t allow enough time for a visit to the airport, whilst the latter is scheduled into Piccadilly one minute before the local stopper to Burnage departs – and even I’m not crazy enough to rely on that, even taking into account padding time. I doubt the new routine can ever raise my spirits in quite the same way as my current one can.

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