Terry Jackson describes.....
Last year South West Trains gave out a large number of vouchers to their customers enabling them to one day return journey between any two stations on their network for the princely sum of £5 during June and July. I made very good use of this to travel from Basingstoke to Exeter to enjoy a run on Past Time Rail's Dawlish Donkey steam service to Paignton. So when the offer was repeated this year, I couldn't resist another cheap day out. After considering what was available, I decided to go to Weymouth via Reading from my local station at Sunningdale on Saturday 12 July.
I planned to catch the 09.08 from Sunningdale (booked for a 458 Juniper unit) and, before leaving home, took the precaution of checking for any delays showing on teletext as SWT are still very prone to cancel services due to lack of a unit or driver or both. Sure enough four cancellations were shown in the Staines area but none affecting my train. On arriving at Sunningdale, the 09.08 was shown on time but the following 09.32 had been cancelled. At this point I should explain at this point that the 458 still appear to be very fragile which seems to confirm the availability figures (from SWT) published in the national press earlier this year which indicated that the 458's were only achieving 3000 miles between breakdowns as opposed to the much maligned slam door units which were achieving over 200,000 miles between breakdowns. Some cynical minds might think that this is the real reason the off peak Reading services are being chopped by half in September to "reduce congestion".
The first shock of the day happened when 8003 appeared a couple of minutes early (this never normally happens) and then proceeded to run early all the way to Reading despite being held waiting right time at Ascot. This was all to no avail as we sat outside Reading waiting for 8024 to vacate platform 4a on the preceding service back to Waterloo.
A gentle stroll down platform 4 at Reading to the west bays and I was just in time to see 170-301 arriving on the Brighton-Reading service which was to form the 10.05 Reading-Brighton, my next train. Having found a seat by a window (yes, there are some), I settled in to await our departure but quickly sat up at the sight of double headed Class 50's, 50-031 leading 50-049, on a Pathfinder tour from Cardiff to Kent.
Arrival at Winchester was a couple of minutes late and got out to await the 10.30 Weymouth ex-Waterloo. However the Wareham service was due in first and, as Southampton is a more interesting station to spend time on than Winchester, I boarded 2424/2412 for the short run to Southampton. Just after St.Denys we passed the new train care depot being built for the maintenance of the Desiro 444 and 450 units. Lets hope that these units come into service on time and prove a lot more reliable than the 458's mentioned above which finally came into regular service some two years after they were first promised in a blaze of publicity.
Southampton was as busy as ever with two 153 units leaving on a Southampton-Swindon service and a 221 Voyager leaving for Bournemouth on a Virgin service before 2411/2419 arrived on the 10.30 from Waterloo some five minutes late. The 442 units still pass the test of time as far as comfort and ride are concerned and they have the distinct these days of being able to be coupled and uncoupled with the corridor connections also connected in about two minutes flat. Contrast this with the 458's, which always run as a 4+4 instead an 8 because it takes too long to couple the corridor connection, and the new 375's on South Central, which are similarly hopeless and are to have their couplers changed. Is this really progress.
Departure from Bournemouth was 5 minutes late with 2411, only single 442 units being allowed between Bournemouth and Weymouth. This is because of the classic Government bodge of only funding a cheap skate scheme when this section was electrified and which lead to the Moreton-Dorchester section being singled to ensure that the power supplies were not overloaded. I bet you thought that the current problems regarding the upgrading of power supplies for the new generation of units was a simple oversight instead of which it is the result of deliberate under funding over many, many years. As far as the Weymouth section is concerned, you don't need me to tell what an operational nightmare this must be for SWT, especially as delays here have a nasty knock-on effect at the London end of the line.
2411 didn't hang about but was still 5 late on arrival at Weymouth. I hadn't been to Weymouth prior to this trip for some 15 years and it was fascinating to note all of the changes that have occurred in that time. Weymouth itself is only a shadow of it's former self but, when the Waterloo service arrives and the passengers have left the platform, it is interesting to watch the staff swing into a well rehearsed routine of cleaning and watering the unit. It all seemed very efficient.
I had time for a quick walk around the town before going back to the station to catch the 14.48 departure on my return journey. This was formed of unit 2408 which had arrived on the 11.30 ex-Waterloo. There was time to have a look at two 150 sprinters which had arrived from Cardiff and were due to leave on their return trip at 14.56 before we left on at 14.48. We had to wait at Dorchester for the 12.30 ex-Waterloo, which was running just over 5 late to clear the single track section before we continued on our way.
Arrival at Bournemouth was a few minutes late and we slowed crept up to 2416 which was already waiting in the up platform for us to couple up. This was achieved in just over a minute and we were ready to depart except that we didn't. The guard announced over the PA that we were waiting for our driver and nothing. Shortly after, he announced in all seriousness that "a driver hadn't been booked for our train and the train was to be cancelled." I then remembered noting that we should have passed a down service to Wareham just after we left that station but in fact we only passed it between Poole and Bournemouth which meant that it was probably running about 20 late. There were obviously major problems in the Bournemouth area.
Anyway we all got off our train and waited and waited. Suddenly it was a case of everybody back on, our train had suddenly become the 16.04 to Waterloo (the return working of the Wareham service above) which was a semi-fast service. We managed to leave almost 10 late in our new guise and our new guard then announced the train as the 16.04 which was running late due to the cancellation of the preceding service at which those passengers who were not fuming about the delay simply fell about laughing. SWT bosses should note that the one thing any TOC should not do is to make themselves look ridiculous with such stupid announcements.
To make matters worse the air conditioning in 2416 wasn't working at Bournemouth and it was a real sweatbox as we made our way back to London. My journey back to Winchester was uneventful although I felt sorry for the many people around me who were busy phoning friends or trying to work out new connections.
At Winchester I now had less waiting time for the 17.36 Brighton-Reading service which arrived about 8 late behind 170-306. We picked up a bit of time and crept into Reading about 4 late but it seemed to as long to get from Basingstoke to Reading West as it did from the latter into the bay at Reading thanks to the crawl up the platform, presumably thanks to TPWS requirements.
Another 458, 8016, was waiting to form the 18.27 to Sunningdale which we reached on time.
In conclusion, I'd had a good day out for a fiver and I think I probably sampled some of the best and worst aspects of travel on our railways today. I think that SWT do some things very well and others very poorly although, as I said above, some things are beyond their control such as the operation of the Weymouth section. Meanwhile I'm going to start working out what I will do next year if they repeat the offer.