Posted in Railways on Saturday 14th November 2009 at 11:47pm

After a week of ups and downs, it was good to get away from things yesterday, with a leisurely run down to the south coast. The Bristol to Southampton route has never been a favourite - too many memories of horribly congested units in recent times - but a mid-morning departure made for a quiet and lazy trip. A little time spent at Eastleigh, and then holed myself up in the hotel at Southampton Airport whilst the weather raged outside. Woke this morning very early with a storm still whipping rain against the window. Realised that within a few short minutes I'd be out in it, and prepared myself for the long day ahead. Managed to take advantage of a gap in the rain to get the short distance to the station - but got a drenching in the even shorter dash from ticket machine to platform. Not sorry to see a pair of warm, dry 450s arrive - even if it was only for the five minute trip to Eastleigh! Over the footbridge on arrival to where a small band of people clearly on the tour were assembling. The arrival of the Pathfinder contingent further assured us that we were in the right place, and to everyone's surprise the stock rolled into the platform early, warm and ready for boarding. Settled in, and obtained supplies of paper towels to mop condensation from the windows - a hazard of these winter tours.

This tour had not been immune to changes in recent weeks, and the loss of a Hanson Class 56 had clearly hit bookings a little. Nevertheless, a fair number boarded at Eastleigh for the painfully early 06:07 start - and we were greeted with an already open Kitchen car which meant that the hideously long queues of recent tours with few off-train breaks were avoided somewhat. After departure we festered for a brief while in Wallers Ash Loop, before proceeding north with the sky becoming lighter by the minute. Oddly as the sun rose, the clouds seemed to clear - and by departure from Reading West we were enjoying a little weak sunshine. By the time of our stop at Fenny Compton loop where 31190 was to take over the train, the autumnal scene was completed with blue skies and a little warmth in the air - a quite remarkable contrast with the start to the day!

66139 waits in the distance at Fenny Compton after working the train from Eastleigh
66139 waits in the distance at Fenny Compton after working the train from Eastleigh

The revised plan was to have 31190 sitting on the Kineton Branch awaiting our train, but as 66139 was detached and drew slowly into the siding, it became clear that our replacement loco was nowhere to be seen. Spent a pleasant few minutes chatting whilst window hanging waiting for something to happen, as a procession of Voyagers and Chiltern units passed by on this surprisingly busy stretch of line. Eventually, a speck of green and yellow in the distance signalled the late arrival of the 31, which rather surprisingly sped past our train before crossing over, reversing and running back alongside our train before again reversing into the loop and onto the front of our stock. Finally, and only a little late, we were away. A single Class 31 hauling nine coaches, headed for the West Coast Main Line - this was clearly going to be an interesting day! We made good progress via Kenilworth and Coventry to join the WCML at Nuneaton. As we headed north towards Colwich, we were amazed to be put out onto the fast lines - our little loco coping remarkably well with the task expected of it, and not really losing any more time at all. Next, a pick up at Stafford then onward to Basford Hall where we took the lines through the back of the yard to Sorting Sidings Middle. Finally, almost a year after the first attempt, Pathfinder made good the route via the Gresty Lane Curve - and after making slow progress around this tight bend, we were soon heading southwards again via Nantwich to Shrewsbury. After setting down some stray normal passengers who had somehow ended up on board, we were off once again and heading for our first destination - Donnington Rail Freight Terminal. This location is a bit of joined up thinking and funding between the Local Authority and a number of other agencies, which has provided an exceptionally high quality facility at the end of a restored branch from the mainline at Wellington. The train was allowed to run to the road overbridge over the area which formerly housed the MoD vehicle depot, where we waited on the middle of five generous sidings for the loco to run around. There was clearly a great deal more to the site, with extensive warehousing beyond the bridge seemingly rail connected.

31190 blends into the autumnal foliage at Fenny Compton
31190 blends into the autumnal foliage at Fenny Compton

Once the train crew and depot staff had taken their own photographs, we were soon on the way again, retracing our steps to Shrewsbury, but then taking the route via Wrexham General to Saltney Junction. This stretch of line is a little dull and featureless, and with the weather once again pleasant I found myself dozing until the train bounced onto the mainline opposite Chester Racecourse. We soon turned away from the usual route once again, taking the very rusty curve from Chester South to Chester North Junction and heading north for a short way before traversing practically the full length of Hooton Long Siding - certainly further than my last visit. With 66139 having travelled up from Fenny Compton to meet us, we were soon underway again and following the same route as the previous tour via Ellesmere Port and the poorly served section beyond to Helsby. A new bit of track for me followed though, as we curved away to the west again via the equally rare Halton Curve to the mainline near Runcorn. Surprised at the length of this connection, but our progress was checked once on the mainline due to problems with the points at Runcorn Junction. However, as there were few options for our reversal except for the planned Folly Lane branch, we sat out the wait and were shortly passing behind Runcorn station and down the steeply graded branch to the stop board at the Network Rail limit. Darkness had descended and the weather was closing in over the Mersey and the Weaver as we awaited our reversal under the strangely alluring lights of the chemical works across the river.

With 31190 again leading, the tour had a final mission - some very unusual routing around Crewe. After a swift dash via Weaver Junction back onto the WCML, there was a sense of quiet anticipation on the train. Would we do this track, or would the railtour gremlins creep in again? As we approach Crewe Coal Yard, a lurch to the right signalled a move to the far western side of the station. Sure enough, as the platform lights began to slip by it became clear we were passing through on the Up and Down Loop - the line running behind the wall which has stymied many a photograph of passing freight! As we emerged from the station, we again curved slightly to the west and passed gingerly onto the link to Crewe South Yard. This bit of track was covered, completely by accident in the other direction on a Spitfire trip earlier in the summer - reportedly it's first use in around 30 years. Perhaps that trip had indeed provided proof that this was a feasible route - albeit a slow one - into Basford Hall? Once again through the yard for a further high speed dash along the WCML as far as Stafford, where we parted company with 31190 after sterling service throughout the day.

After a longer than necessary run around, and with 66139 once again in charge we set off again to Rugeley Trent Valley, taking the line through Cannock Chase - very rare for loco-hauled trains. Recalled a couple of previous visits - on the first weekend of the restored service to Rugeley Town a good few years back, and then on a through service to Stafford prior to the WCML upgrade. Despite some slow progress at first, we began to pick up a little speed and after being signalled straight out onto the main at Stetchford, talk turned to how late home we'd be. Despite carrying around 68 minutes delay from Stafford, we noted lengthy stops at Birmingham International, Kenilworth and Hinksey which might just save us. In fact it all seemed likely to collapse at the first hurdle as we were signalled into the remote platform 5 at International with a local all shacks service to Coventry due to depart mere seconds after our arrival! However in one of the more intelligent bits of regulation I've seen on recent tours, the signalman let us go and we were soon putting distance between us and the stopper. Likewise at both Kenilworth and Hinksey we passed unhindered, and we found ourselves at Didcot Parkway early! Despite some slow running into Eastleigh, we made it bang on time - stumbling out onto the platform around 17 hours after we'd left. Bade goodbye to the day's companions and hopped onto the next Airport bound service. A good old fashioned dash around unusual lines, with some interesting traction. What's more, the tour did everything it set out to - no mean feat these days!

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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.

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