2020 – UK – “Trains at a Distance”

Avoiding non-essential travel during the COVID-19 pandemic

Locked Down

It’s Sunday May 10th 2020 and we are at the end of our seventh week of COVID-19 lockdown in the UK.

Over the past few weeks, just like many other people, I have seen my travel life changed completely. In the first two months of this year I travelled more than 15,000 miles across the world on several business trips.  In the last two months I haven’t even ventured 15 miles from my home. In fact, I am now actually banned from entering most of the countries I visited earlier this year.


My only opportunities for travel at the moment are a couple of short car journeys each week and daily walks around the village.  The nearest I get to travelling by train is watching the “driver’s eye view” videos that accompany my frequent treadmill runs.

I have no complaints at all.  I just feel lucky not to have caught the virus myself.  There have been more than thirty thousand UK deaths recorded so far and that total includes two in our own village.  The brother of a colleague, the same age as me, spent two weeks in intensive care before eventually recovering.  It all certainly feels quite close and I know things could be a lot worse.

Last Orders

Like many in the UK, the crisis crept up on me slowly and stealthily.  In January I watched with less alarm than I probably should have done as it engulfed China.  Towards the end of the month I walked through Los Angeles airport eyeing all the Chinese and Korean travellers in their facemasks feeling relative detachment and glad that the crisis wouldn’t be affecting me.

Deserted Chinese Stand at Trade Show

In February I spent a week at a German trade show listening to the stories of the few Chinese suppliers who hadn’t had to cancel their participation.  Although I had begun washing my hands more frequently by then, I still didn’t seriously believe it would affect me.   The real problem, I thought, would be how to keep those supply chains open,  how to deal with the delays and even how to find alternative suppliers to bridge the gap.


By early March it finally seemed the problem was getting closer.   A business trip to Japan was suddenly cancelled, a bank seminar I attended predicted a short UK recession and then suddenly stories from friends in locked-down Italy started to scare me.

On March 14th I went up to London for drinks in a few pubs and a meal in a Soho restaurant.    It was crowded enough and, although there were new signs about washing hands everywhere,  people were still out enjoying themselves.   Yet the atmosphere had started to feel a little different: in the conversations I participated in and in the discussions I overheard, there was clearly now only one subject on everyone’s mind.


As I walked around that day I began to feel that maybe I was seeing the end of an era. As I walked past all the bustling restaurants, all the little businesses like the cup cake shops and the high-end boutiques; I began to wonder just how resilient they would be even in a short recession.   If after a month or so the UK did follow Italy into a kind of lockdown, would they all survive?  Was this perhaps one of the last glimpses of a certain side of London that I might not see again for a while?

Just two days later, on Monday 16th March, Boris Johnson made a request for people to avoid going to bars and restaurants.  On Friday 20th March he made the request compulsory.    The pubs and restaurants closed that evening.

On Monday March 23rd the UK Government announced a comprehensive “lockdown”.  We would now be allowed out of our homes only for one of three reasons; to go to work (if we really couldn’t work from home), to buy essentials and for exercise.

To Work From Home

So here we are, seven weeks later, and we are almost used to it all.  We have had the Government message drummed into us by actor Mark Strong: we must stay at home, protect the NHS and save Lives.  To further support the point, we have all received a letter from the Prime Minister.  The fact that it arrived just as he was entering intensive care himself seemed to reinforce it even more.

We have debated whether all this is an overreaction or not, but by and large most of us have been obedient and even now, 50 days in,  it seems that more than 70% of us want the arrangements to continue for a little while longer.   We are all expert epidemiologists now, of course, and we know that “R” number has to come down a bit more first.


For my own work, I decided on a mixed approach: most days I have been staying at home and on just one or two days venturing into the office.  Even with a team cut down to just a few people we have still been in a frenzy of washing hands, disinfecting door handles and social distancing.  We have got used to Zoom meetings and tasteless internet jokes about Coronavirus.


My wife was also asked to work from home for a while but, just as we had got the VPN finally set up, she was furloughed under the UK Government scheme (along with 7 million others).   We have both had cuts to our income but we know we are still far better off than many who are suffering now and who will suffer even more in the inevitable recession that will follow.

To Shop for Basic Necessities

We have quickly got used to shortages, particularly of toilet roll, hand gel and flour, and we have tried to follow the new one way systems in the supermarket aisles. We have long had most of our groceries delivered anyway but now it seems everyone else down our road is joining us. Suddenly there is a seemingly non-stop daily cavalcade of delivery vans bringing in the “essentials” that people are ordering on line.


I have ordered just one item myself: electric hair clippers. I have already had my first COVID-19 home haircut.  I am quite impressed with it.  Although the day after it was done I discovered a sign for a place near the station that offers haircuts, wartime style, on the black market.


We have also started to try and replicate the things we miss most, often virtually, usually on line.  There are virtual pubs, YouTube keep fit sessions and a whole blog of frequent flyers making their own airline meals at home.

The Guardian newspaper has featured a useful article aimed at recreating some of the signature dishes from closed London restaurants.  My wife has been working on replicating food from the Sri Lankan eatery “Hoppers” and she has also produced Brick Lane salt beef bagels with home cured brisket.

To Exercise Once a Day

We have taken the Government advice that we can only go out once a day to exercise to heart.  We have actually reinterpreted it to mean we must go out every day to exercise. We have been walking off in different directions making circuits around the village.


The walks have made us even more appreciative of our lot.  Not only do we have a garden, but we also have superb scenery within easy walking distance. It is even better now the skies are clearer  (Gatwick is almost closed) and there is less motorway noise.


We are still reminded of the virus wherever we go though.  The little footpaths are decorated with helpful signs warning us not to touch gates and fences for fear of infection.  More serious police notices warn people not to travel to the area in their cars and walk.


With excellent timing, the people from the local historical society have just put up a series of fascinating signs that explain the history of the village. They are really well done and full of information.  I have learned more about the place I live in the past 25 days than in the past 25 years.


As we walk around we also find that people have more time to chat. It is actually quite impressive how seriously everyone takes their social distancing though. When people approach us we do all sorts of bizarre moves in order to avoid one other and then, more often than not, we laugh together at how strange it all is and we stop to talk.


Suddenly everyone, including myself, is volunteering to help out too.   The children at the local school have been painting pebbles and making paper hearts (at home) and they have put them on display.  Many houses have rainbow symbols in their windows and there is a clear sense that people are really trying to be as positive as possible.


It is actually hard to be totally positive when there is so much suffering and misery around but a poll in the Independent newspaper revealed that 42% of people are happier  (or perhaps they think they are) in the lockdown than before it.  I wouldn’t say that is me exactly, but I understand it.


Is Your Journey Really Necessary?

We have wandered past our local station a few times now on our daily walks.  It is all very strange: the ticket office is open, it is staffed as usual and the trains are operating a reduced, but still substantial service (down from 8 trains to 6 an hour), yet the car park is completely empty and there is no one around.

Sevenoaks Station – “Thank You NHS”

There are signs everywhere encouraging people not to travel and they are backed up by frequent automated announcements.  The message seems to be getting across:  passenger numbers are down to just 5% of normal.


Apparently punctuality is near record levels. If we really wanted confirmation that we are in a crisis, we got it in early April: the 07:32 from Woking to Waterloo (Britain’s most crowded train) arrived at its destination on time for the first time in 2020.  It was almost empty.  It just goes to show how well the railway can run if the passengers don’t get in the way!


We have stood at our local station or at the level crossing on a nearby footpath a few times now and just watched the trains come and go.  We have counted around 10 people on whole eight carriage trains. It feels odd that we are not really allowed to get on a train and go up to London, but it feels even odder that we don’t really want to travel.  For now, almost like children, we are content just to wave as the trains go past.


Keeping Running on Track

On our walks we have also been seeing a lot more runners out and about than normal. I run myself but, although I try to do several half marathons every year (all cancelled now of course), I much prefer to do all my practice running inside.


About 25 years ago I bought my own treadmill.  It was one of the best investments I ever made and I replaced it for another one after 12 years.  Of course, running on a treadmill is not for everyone but I love it.  I like being able to control my speed and gradient; I also find it easier on the knees.

Boredom can be a problem, but I solved it a few years ago by rigging up a tablet to the running machine and watching films; usually I watched films I had seen before. Then about five years ago I discovered the great “Norwegian rail ride” movie.    Over nine hours long, it was one of the first examples of “slow TV”.  I decided to try it on the running machine and suddenly my fascination with railways melded with my love of running.

Norway – Slow TV / YouTube

I soon found there were literally hundreds of similar videos on YouTube.  Now more often than not, I will watch something like this when I am running.  I find that watching a driver’s eye video is just about the perfect thing to take my mind off the running!

Being “trapped” at home for the last few months, I have found running whilst watching these films, and the beautiful countryside they usually feature, quite  therapeutic.

A Railway Metaphor

So, how long is all this going to last?

Today Boris Johnson announced new measures designed to slowly relax the restrictions and eventually get us out of the lockdown, but I do wonder if things will ever get back to normal again?

Whenever I watch the driver’s eye view videos I always find the tunnels quite fascinating. It is a tribute to the Victorian railway engineers that so many of our long tunnels are completely straight. It is often possible to focus on that small speck of light in the distance and watch it get larger and larger.  Although, just like in the metaphor, occasionally it really can be a train approaching from the opposite direction!


Yet, sometimes it is just not possible to see the end at all and everything is eerily dark for ages and ages.  Heading east through Standedge Tunnel (under the Pennines between Manchester and Huddersfield) has this effect. The train travels straight and flat for 3 long miles but with no end in sight; then suddenly it rounds a curve and the  exit appears right ahead large and bright.

The message for the passengers is that we don’t know how long this particular tunnel is or even how many other tunnels there are on the line ahead.  So we will just have to be positive and remember to savour all the experiences we miss now whenever we finally get them back.


For me, those experiences will include; not just getting on a train or travelling out of the UK again, but going to the cinema with friends, chatting with my barber, huddling at the start of a half marathon, looking at a menu in a restaurant and sipping that first pint of the day in a favourite pub.

Better things are coming soon….

On a warm summer’s day in 1980: “Deltic” 55016 Gordon Highlander leaves the darkness of Stoke Tunnel behind as it forges south with an express for London King’s Cross. (Photo taken with my trusty Zenit-E ! )