A to B 48 Blog, June 2005 – Central Trains, Brompton

FIRST PUBLISHED June 2005
2005 Brompton Launch, Central Trains, Brigitte Bardot & Solex

Catching a train in older, simpler days, one generally purchased – then referred to – a ‘timetable’, before travelling to the station and waiting for something to happen. With today’s technology, the process is altogether easier!

The Mole provides as an example a recent harrowing journey from Bilbrook station on the Central Trains network. Like all wise travellers, the Mole checks on the internet 24 hours in advance, gaining an essential picture of the latest running information. Check One proceeds smoothly enough, revealing that – barring staff defects, locomotive on strike, or the wrong kind of snow – a train is booked to arrive at 10.23am on the appointed day. Journeying to the station in good time, one makes the second essential check, confirming on the old-fashioned paper timetable that Check One had yielded reliable information. All goes well; the 10.23 does exist.

Check Three causes some disquiet amongst regular travellers: the automated voice on the push-button machine-thing claims that the next train will arrive at 11.23, but we have yet to see the 10.23. Check Four involves hasty use of a mobile phone, and a call to the central rail enquiry number. These days, one’s call is generally routed to a pleasant young lady in foreign parts, who is generally obliged to communicate back to the UK to find where the train has gone, and indeed, what country it is in. But on this occasion the apparatus responds with a friendly West Midlands accent. ‘Is the 10.23 running today?’ ‘It’s on its way sir, and running on time!’ Fantastic news; the automated thing must be malfunctioning.

At 10.22, the 10.23 appears from Codsall, causing much relieved shuffling on the platform… then proceeds to run straight through the station.

After enduring 40 sweaty minutes on an overcrowded bus, followed by two missed connections and a late arrival at Bogworthy Junction, one eventually gleans the truth from the Central Trains press office. It seems Central has recently inherited some trains that are too long for certain platforms. Unable to say in advance when or where these trains might be rostered – and banned from stopping them at short platforms by the Health & Safety Executive – the drivers are instructed to run through without stopping. Railway companies are allowed to follow the logical course and welcome customers through the guard’s door, but only if arrangements have been made in advance with the Health & Safety Executive, signed in triplicate, and so on and so forth.

Thus, where we might have trooped past the guard in perfect safety, a dozen of us are obliged to run up the road, leap on a bus and run into another station at the other end. Even ignoring the possibility of some poor old soul suffering a heart attack, or being murdered by an angry spouse, this must surely be a more dangerous scenario? One suspects this is all part of the modern trend towards what is colloquially known as ‘arse covering’, rather as small boys once padded their trousers before visiting the headmaster. On railway property, one’s every move is scrutinised for risk, and the best way to reduce that risk is to keep passengers well away from trains. How one deals with risk outside the station is one’s own affair. Speaking of risk, bicycle launches are a bit thin on the ground these days, primarily because we don’t have an industry any more, so the Mole was greatly thrilled to make the trip from Bogworthy to Paddington for the 2005 Brompton launch at the London Transport Museum.

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Brompton’s Will Butler-Adams getting very excited about something, or perhaps recounting a fishing trip

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Alexander & Jane Henshaw discuss shoulder bags with Caroline Moore

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Mike Burrows (L) and Richard Ballantine (R): ‘Nasty stuff to machine, titanium’.

The venue proved to be an extremely jolly choice, as the exhibits – mostly large and red – made an entertaining backdrop, although one wonders how they get the red wine stains out of Routemaster buses. Brompton has revamped its model range with a positive cornucopia of options (up to 70 billion permutations according to some wag at the launch) where previously five were considered more than adequate. For the innocent punter looking for something economical to ride to work, the main change is that red or green paint, previously thrown in gratis, now costs an extra sixty quid. For eighty quid you can have a bicycle without any paint at all, which doesn’t sound like progress, but will no doubt attract eager buyers.

The real thrust, of course, isn’t in humble green bicycles for bird- watching types, but a brash new range, rebranded with sharp logos and the sort of pastel shades normally reserved for night clubs and similar establishments.The new bikes – be-jewelled with titanium thrunk- washers and other priceless technology – will be aimed at young people, which in bicycling terms means one’s children or even grandchildren – a brave move indeed.

This sort of thing is essential to prevent bicycling from dying out altogether. As Darwin might have observed, if folding bicycles are purchased only by those beyond child-bearing age, the folding bike gene is as doomed as – for example – the MG/Rover gene.

The Brompton launch was characterised more by the people who were not there, than by those who were. The general election hadn’t helped: diminutive transport minister Charlotte Atkins MP had been booked to deliver a few carefully chosen pro-bicycle words, but pulled out, presumably warned off by the spin-meisters that the Government had pulled the financial plug on Britain’s last volume car-maker.

Another no-show was keen Brompton rider and chairman of Shell, Lord Oxburgh. One assumes the top man at one of the world’s biggest oil companies thought better of endorsing a folding bicycle as it was announced that most of the world’s oil reserves had been turned into CO2.

So for a number of political and economic reasons, the launch was populated by the usual suspects.The entire A to B team made an appearance, with Jane Henshaw sporting an off-the shoulder Brompton tyre bag, and young Alexander spending eight hours hopping on and off the exhibits, before being retrieved with minutes to spare for the last train home. Peter Eland of Velovision was very much in evidence too, but the rest of the cycling media seems to have stayed away – odd, given that this was a major launch by a British company building bicycles in the UK. Whether or not Brompton is now the largest British cycle manufacturer (as opposed to distributor) is a matter for debate.

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Andrew Ritchie addressing the man (and woman) on the Chingford omnibus

Andrew Ritchie of Brompton announced that his company certainly was the biggest, if one excluded the concern ‘that builds a few specialist machines’, thus neatly writing off Pashley Cycles in a few well-chosen words.

Pashley had failed to attend the festivities, as indeed had Doctor Moulton, who might at least have sent his nephew Shaun, generally kept in reserve for less prestigious events. Indeed, amongst Brompton’s folding bike competitors, only Mark Bickerton of Dahon and Grahame Herbert, designer of the Airframe, made an appearance. Engineers were well represented, with the legendary Mike Burrows taking a keen interest in the new titanium frame parts. ‘Why haven’t they made it entirely of titanium?’ asks Mike in a rhetorical sort of way. ‘Because they haven’t found a way to engineer the hinge in titanium, that’s why!’ ‘Nasty stuff to machine, titanium.’ Well, there’s a challenge. A week or so later, Giant launched its 2005 bikes at a hotel complex just off the M6 toll motorway which sounded less convenient for those arriving by bicycle.

Building on the success of the elegant Lafree, Giant has expanded its electric range.The Lafree sees all sorts of changes for 2005, principally that it will be called something different, which sounds an odd way to build on marketing success. Confident at last that electric bikes have become respectable, Giant has dropped the Lafree ‘brand’, rebadging the electric machines as Giants. A seemingly insignificant piece of badge-engineering, but indicative of a tidal shift in attitudes.

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Brigitte Bardot and Solex

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Speaking of badges, it seems the Solex cyclemotor has made another comeback, this time in it’s homeland of France, after abortive manufacture in all sorts of places.These friction-drive devices enabled the impecunious to create a motorcycle out of a bicycle, before the likes of the Lafree and budget Chinese scooters made such things redundant.

For legal reasons, the new machines are called ‘Black ‘n Roll’, and in an odd reversal, 65% of the content is shipped from China, where such machines are now banned (hence the glut of electric bicycles), and despite the limited local content, the new Solex is officially Fabrique en France. Diligent research has unearthed photographs of Solex er, models, young and old.Whether today’s model has been instructed to strike a similar pose to Ms Bardot is unclear, but an entire thesis could be written on the subtle differences between the two images. Sadly, one has neither the time nor the inclination, other than to add that the 2005 model has been upgraded to full Euro- standards with electronic ignition, a catalytic converter and whisper-quiet exhaust. The engine, on the other hand, looks much the same.