Our rail companies regularly do line maintenance and engineering work at weekends and holiday periods, when much of their market – above all commuters – is quiet. Works often mean diversion and delays, so for some years I’ve (wherever possible) avoided weekend rail travel.
This christmas/new year period is no exception: they’ve taken advantage of it to conduct some major works. But what has changed in the last couple of years is that the online timetables now take account of all planned disruption. So we can now plan a journey with reasonable confidence. If your journey is shown as running normally, it’s because you’re unaffected by works, not (as before) because the timetable is a work of hopeful fiction. My main reason to avoid weekend/holiday travel is nullified.
Other disruption is alas less predictable, and our recent weather has provided it. It’s been warm, wet and windy, and storm damage has led to disruption that the timetables cannot generally deal with. To their credit, national rail now make very creditable efforts to provide up-to-date information about unscheduled disruption such as weather, too. Today’s weather forecast was – correctly – for more heavy rain and strong but not extreme wind.
So I embarked on the long journey home hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. Taking the first train of the morning at 7 a.m. at least leaves plenty of time. While not at risk of overcrowding, the early train was much busier than I had expected at that hour on New Years Day, and happily it was perfectly on time. The second train was less busy, and also perfectly on time. Disruption? What disruption?
The third and longest leg is the intercity route from London to Southwest England, which I joined at Westbury. Westbury is always a miserable station to wait at, and today’s weather certainly didn’t help when the train arrived something over ten minutes late, on top of the twenty minutes scheduled change. But once on the train I was compensated by the luxury of a nearly-empty carriage, and I accepted the explanation that it had been slowed for safety reasons. If there’s a landslip or a tree down on the line, you don’t want to hit it at 200Km/h! Later there was another stretch where we again slowed to a crawl. 15 minutes or so late in Plymouth, but one can’t blame them in the circumstances. My sister-in-law took nearly as long to travel one third of the distance by road!
What really impressed me was how the train passed through flooded areas. Extensive surface flooding on the Somerset Levels approaching Taunton was deep enough for the wind to whip up crested waves, and at a higher level than the tracks. Yet (presumably) by some miracle of engineering, the tracks themselves were clear of floodwater and the train was able to pass the stretch at speed.
Fortunately (and because I’d checked the tide tables) we passed the coastal stretch around Dawlish/Teignmouth at low tide. A few hours later those stormy-weather waves would’ve been breaking over both the track and the train.
 [I fell asleep writing this. Just returned to it Jan. 3rd, but read Jan.1st for “today”.]