Posted in Railways on Monday 22nd June 2009 at 2:56pm
It's my custom here to try to comment on things as soon after they happen as possible, but this weekend has been extraordinary in a number of ways, and the need to get some rest and reflect on a fantastic few days has been welcome. I've tried to recollect the events of the past few days as accurately as possible, and probably included far too many pictures of Western Champion in the process. I make no apology - it was a remarkable weekend...
Day 1 - The Northern Lights
Friday started feeling a little chilly and apprehensive. There were a lot of variables involved in this trip, and lots that could go wrong. In fact I'd probably spent more time and money arranging this than some of my jaunts to the USA years ago! However, my fear that FGW might scupper me at the first hurdle were unfounded, and the 05:49 got me to Bristol in time to queue behind various Pathfinder stewards for coffee and breakfast. The stock was already in platform 5, with 'Royal Skip' 67005 at the helm as had been widely predicted the previous evening. Noted that we'd be at the back for the journey northwards, but some mental calculations based on the timings confirmed this would mean being as close as possible to the loco on the return trip.
An ontime departure followed, and as we picked up along the way it became clear that this was going to be an entertaining trip based on fellow travellers in Coach H. Sat back, enjoyed the decent weather and listened to the banter. It was clear that this trip had brought together a real mixture of people - retired bashers long since off the scene, people with a more current interest, preservationists, indeed given the 'long weekend' format of the trip a good few people had brought along significant others. Settled in for the ride up to Bescot Yard, with a real sense of excitement building as everyone waited for the star turn.
And so, D1015 took over the train. After a smooth, swift loco change we were soon heading north, rejoining the WCML at Bushbury and making very quick progress northwards. It's been four years since I've had the pleasure of a run behind Western Champion and I'd forgotten just how quick and effortless it all felt. Occasionally we were brought to a stand, and even nine coaches from the engine there was an audible growl from the loco and a gust of smoke as we moved away. It was all so effortless in fact that the hours seemed to disappear along with the miles, with neither Shap nor Beattock presenting any problems for Champion. In Quintinshill loop, Dick Unpronouncable set a trend for the weekend by making an announcement about the terrible rail crash of 1915. He repeated his unfortunately disaster-focused commentaries at Bannockburn, Culloden and even a particularly treacherous level crossing at Murthly - which lead to cries of "how many died here then?" every time he announced further points of interest. Once we'd skirted the southern suburbs of Glasgow and worked our way around via Law Junction, Mossend and Cumbernauld, we gained the line north, and began to climb into really wild country. Despite the dire warnings, the promised bad weather hadn't really made an appearance at all - and only in the perpetually grim and forsaken Pass of Druimuachdar did it begin to rain a little during a brief wait at Dalwhinnie.
Soon on our way again, and as we descended from Slochd towards Inverness, the sun breached the clouds and the Moray Firth appeared with the distant mountains in Sutherland bathed in light despite the late hour. There was something quite inspiring about the sight - and fittingly someone quietly, almost reverently, pointed out "bloody hell - a Western has made it to Inverness!". Nobody seemed to want to leave the platform after we'd arrived, with Champion gently ticking over on the buffer stops it certainly felt like we'd all been part of something special. Eventually everyone began to drift off to hotels, pubs and restaurants to celebrate a fantastic day out.
Day 2 - How The West Was Won
After a well-earned sleep in a very nice hotel in Town, wandered down early to do a little shopping and enjoy a coffee before the off. It was strange to have plenty of time to make my way to the start of a railtour for a change, but couldn't resist heading for the station early and found plenty of others had felt the same way. Lazed around in fantastic sunshine, chatting and watching units coming and going. There had been much debate about the arrangements for the trip today, but I'd stuck to my guns on this - Champion would lead the stock into platform 1 or 2 - being the only suitably long ones for the train. It then seemed we'd be propelled back to Welsh's Bridge to take the Rose Street Curve to reach the lines heading for Dingwall. This meant the bonus for me of picking up this otherwise hard to get bit of PSUL track. With this manoeuvre completed as planned we made a cautious crossing of the swing bridge at Clacknaharrie before picking up speed as we headed alongside the Beauly Firth towards Dingwall. Had breakfast on the train, and also sampled a few of the ales on board as we turned west onto the Kyle line. There were a mixture of people on board - some hadn't been this way for many years, others had never ventured this far north. However, as we slowly climbed towards the formidable outpost of Raven's Rock, everyone seemed somewhat subdued by the frankly awe-inspiring scenery outside the train. A brief pause to let a unit pass at Achnasheen before we pressed onwards, hugging the shores of Loch Carron as we descended towards the coast.
Eventually, after a fairly swift run we curved into the terminus at Kyle of Lochalsh under amazing blue skies. An emotional moment here, as those responsible for making this trip possible assembled in front of the loco for an impromptu seminar. The last two days had displayed admirably the fantastic efforts which have been undertaken to keep D1015 in tip-top condition. After the obligatory photographs, the crowds went their separate ways in order to fill a long afternoon stop here. For my part, after exploring the village - something I've not had time to do before in the short turn-arounds between trains - I took the bus over the Skye Bridge soaring high over the narrow straight that formerly required a ferry journey. Spent a little while exploring tiny but attractive village of Kyleakin and actually found myself relaxing and not thinking about work for the first time in a very long time. Instead pondered how tricky it must have been to sustain these communities which relied so heavily on the ferry, now that the bridge takes the traffic flying past them.
Returned by bus to Kyle and had a late lunch sitting on the station platform and reading, while waiting for the stock of our train to be shunted. This was a complex process, involving the entire train being propelled out of the non-preferred platform 2 and into the more often-used platform 1 which allowed the loco to release and run around the coaches. Once reattached, D1015 propelled the train back to the buffers - and ended up making a second attempt due to a problem with the RETB signalling. Joined the group on the road bridge to watch and get pictures of these manoeuvres - which are strange and unusual now in the age of a multiple-unit railway.
As people drifted back to join the train for the trip back, a piper turned up and busked for the the crowds on the station. For the first time though, we were at the front of the train and the only music I was really interested in hearing was from Western Champion's twin Maybach engines as she made the long ascent back to Luib Summit. First though we had a photo stop - originally planned for Strathcarron, but rescheduled to take place at Stromeferry to prevent the train blocking a level crossing. This proved to be a very fortunate choice as, once we'd stopped we were beckoned across the line to photograph the train. It's a very long time since this has happened on a railtour, and it contributed to the sense that this was adding up to a very special event.
Treated myself to a further sampling of ales which had been procured on Skye to replace the stock which had been drunk dry on the outward trip. Some very unusual beers almost unheard of on the mainland too. After a storming, noisy run back to Inverness we again used the Rose Street Curve and backed into the platform. Lots of very happy and slightly sun-burned faces as the assembled crowds dispersed to various venues around the city to celebrate another successful day out!
Day 3 - Taking The Long Way Home
Another decent night's sleep - a rare thing lately - and soon checked out of the hotel and into Inverness early. Always interesting to watch a city wake up on a Sunday, and managed to make myself the first customer of the day at the coffee shop. Joined the assembling crowds at the station, again in glorious weather, and awaited the arrival of our train. Once again propelled in from the yard, with our coach as close to the front as possible. Away on time, and a twinge of regret as we watched Inverness disappear into the distance as the line climbed to Culloden and turned south. Our first stop was after the fairly brief journey to Aviemore. Took the opportunity for a photograph here, where the crowds across the platform managed to persuade a piper waiting for a train south to pose beside the train and play the pipes briefly for us all. The rather bewildered and admittedly hung-over piper explained that he'd played at a barbecue the previous evening and was heading back to Pitlochry. He seemed genuinely bewildered by the arrival of Western Champion and all the activity, but was soon offered a lift to Perth where he could easily double back to get home. He accepted, and this meant that our next brief stop at Perth also included a performance. As we left the station, with an outrageously loud performance by Champion the piper stood at the end of the platform and piped the train on it's way. A fitting farewell to the Highlands!
From Perth we took the Ladybank line, then the little-used link at Thornton North Junction to follow the Fife Circle through Dunfermline, as the more direct route was closed for works. Eventually made it to the very brink of the Forth Bridge, where there was something of a slip-up with the loco and we ground to a halt. After a brief, worrying moment, things were back underway and we thundered over the immense structure triumphantly, arriving only a few minutes late at Edinburgh Waverley. After a short pause here we set off with an explosive departure through Calton North Tunnel, before slowing at Portobello to take the Suburban Lines. Another bit of required track for me as we curved west again at Niddrie West Junction, then took the line from Craiglockhart Junction to Slateford Junction to access the line to Carstairs and eventually the WCML homewards. With the afternoon proving to be very warm, and a good range of beer left on the train, it was a sleepy trip back to the Midlands. Lots of banter, and plenty of congratulations for the team from the DTG and Pathfinder for the successful weekend. It was around this time that people - some of them very old, experienced hands at this game - started to talk about this being "the best railtour ever". High praise indeed.
Hopped out at Birmingham New Street to watch D1015 detach and head off into the sunset. It had been such a spectacular few days that no-one even managed a disparaging comment for 66206 which DBS had supplied for our journey back to Bristol, perhaps helped by this being a particularly rare example of the class as far as passenger work is concerned? Arrived back at Bristol and made the short trek to my base for the evening, tired but very happy indeed. Well over a thousand miles later, and having been blessed with excellent weather, good company and most of all, fantastic running from a fine locomotive, it's easy to see why even the organisers were considering this one of the best ever. This trip will be remembered for a very long time by those of us who made the trek up to Kyle for the first time with a Western!
So, having recuperated and reflected today - was it the best railtour ever? It's hard to say because there are always surprises around the corner. Certainly, there was a palpable sense of history being made over the weekend which added to a celebratory atmosphere. Great weather, a stunning location and fantastic motive power made for a very special event indeed. Trudging back home this morning, feeling knackered and a little bit miserable that it was all over, I came to the conclusion that this will definitely take some beating!
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.