Saturday, 15 December 2012

Christmas in West London

Scene: Paddington Station
Date: Christmas Day 2012
Time: 10:30
Present: Paddington Bear, Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The railway being closed and Paddington Station being silent, Paddington Bear and Isambard Kingdom Brunel have left their respective plinths to admire their station. As they have done every Christmas Day in recent years, their paths cross. It is not hard for them to notice one another: apart from pigeons and scurrying rodents, they are the only creatures moving on the station.

If you were a fly on the wall (whom I didn't forget when talking about moving creatures: Freda the Fly is as still as the statues Brunel and Paddington were a few minutes ago) the first characteristic you might notice is the similarity between the old engineer and the bear from Darkest Peru. Both of small stature, both wearing a hat. both taking slow, short, serious steps as they make their way across The Lawn.

IKB: Happy Birthday, Mr Brown [and it is indeed Paddington's birthday. Or one of them, to be precise.]

PB: Merry Christmas, Mr Brunel. The noise on Eastbourne Terrace!

IKB: Well, we should enjoy our short-lived silence. That's the price of progress.

PB: But why couldn't they have built the Crossrail station under our station? Much less disruptive.

IKB: But cheaper to dig a big hole in the ground. And I have an interesting proposition to discuss with you Mr Brown.

PB: Please tell me.

IKB: Well, if I had had the tunnelling capabilities available today, I would have taken the Great Western Railway across the West End to Liverpool Street - a bit like they are doing today. So Paddington today would likely be an inner-suburban station a bit like Ealing Broadway. And, with the station not being a terminus, it wouldn't have the grand architecture. And you would probably not exist.

PB: Ah yes, but that would mean that King's Cross and St. Pancras wouldn't exist either, Maybe it was for the best that the technology came later? We would have lost some wonderful architecture.

IKB: But then the interchange stations would have been the places where we spent the money. So you could have been Farringdon Bear, for instance.

PB: Frequenting Smithfield Market rather than Portobello Market? No thank you. I'm very glad that the station is here.

IKB: Another point Mr Brown. If the railway as a whole had adopted my broad gauge, we wouldn't have the capacity issues we have now.

PB: But imagine the land costs Mr Brunel. The benefit to cost ratio goes down because we need more land to build the same railway. So we build less railways. Look at the M25.

IKB: I'd rather not.

PB: It's an obvious analogy. First we ask for a three lane motorway, then demand increases to fill the capacity. We then have a perfect business case for a four lane motorway. If we'd asked for a four lane motorway in the first place we would have been given nothing.

IKB: Economics delaying innovation, as ever. Which is why I'm so pleased to see Crossrail - even if it is 20 years late. Or 170 years late, depending on your point of view. But I really think we should have had four tracks built - that way the fast trains could have gone through the tunnels too, and many people could have travelled from the West Country to work in the West End, the City and Canary Wharf without changing.

PB: And we would have waited another 20 years or another 170 years for it to be built, Mr Brunel.

IKB: You are so damned practical Mr Brown. So what do you think of the new wires coming to Paddington?

PB: Well our station will be cleaner no doubt. But I do miss the old steam trains.

IKB: How sentimental, Mr Brown. You must barely remember them here. By the time you arrived from Darkest Peru, they had almost been replaced with diesel trains. But if I could have built electric trains, I would have done. It's not only the dirt: they are so much quieter, and they're easier to maintain. Steam trains are great for showing children history in action, but for running a railway give me electric trains any day.

PB: Well, at least we are having overhead wires. The trains from Victoria and Waterloo become stuck in the snow.

IKB: Even that seems to be changing with the announcement of overhead wires from Basingstoke to Southampton. But the wrong decision by Southern region to have third rail electric traction will take decades to reverse - unlike my correct decision to use broad gauge, which took a weekend to replace in 1892.

PB: I feel we have said all there is to say that is useful regarding the broad gauge, Mr Brunel. What do you think of the new station for the Hammersmith and City?

IKB: Well it looks nice - but it's still awfully crowded on the platforms. And it seems to be further to walk via the new taxi rank. Which is a great success.

PB: Yes, that was a good idea. It's a long way from platform 1, mind.

IKB: Maybe that's the idea - take your luggage on Crossrail as it's easier than a taxi. Great innovative thinking there.

PB: Or maybe it's the only place the taxi rank can go with the hole in the ground and the awful noise on Eastbourne Terrace.

IKB: Maybe you should suggest that your plinth is moved temporarily until the building work is finished?

PB: Thank you for that idea Mr Brunel, I shall suggest it to Mr Grober when I next see him.

The station clock moves on to 11:00.

PB: Well, it was lovely to see you again Mr Brunel, it's time for elevenses. Now I wonder where I can find marmalade sandwiches on our station on Christmas Day?

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