Posted in Railways on Saturday 8th January 2011 at 8:55pm

Despite a couple of opportunities for escape over the extended holiday, this was the first relatively normal trip of 2011. This time of year is always a little odd - a bunch of hastily arranged trips to fill in gaps in a sparse programme of tours - and this week was no exception. The programme was a fairly straightforward one - up to Sheffield, then a spin around the route via Penistone for the long haul homewards. Out into a damp but mercifully frost free morning, and onto the first train of the day. The hacking cough which I'd been suppressing poorly for much of yesterday afternoon had turned into the beginning of a cold. I sniffled and shuffled to the station, looking forward to the opportunity to get coffee. It had, in fairness been a pretty bloody awful week in most respects - uncertainty, doubt, disappointment and frustration had defined the first working week of the new year. Still, today was one of those precious escapes and I wasn't going to waste it.

A little longer at Bristol than normal, as I'd decided on the 07:30 direct to Sheffield. I hadn't any recollection how busy this one got, but the station was extremely quiet. Had a fairly big breakfast - because colds always make me hungry - and quaffed absurd amounts of coffee whilst waiting. On boarding, realised I was practically the only person in the carriage. Settled in for a pleasant ride up to the Midlands, listening to podcasts and watching a surprisingly inspirational sunrise. Surprisingly few passengers joined at Birmingham except for a small group of fans off to Doncaster Rovers, so continued my listening and occasional dozing through Derby and on to Sheffield. Didn't feel energetic enough to stroll into town here, despite blue skies and amazingly warm sunshine - so found a window seat on the concourse and enjoyed yet more coffee. This was a good, calming morning.

170301 in a sudden sunlit moment at Huddersfield
170301 in a sudden sunlit moment at Huddersfield

If today had a target at all, then the next leg was probably it. I'd done the line to Huddersfield on an All-Line Rover a few years back, and enjoyed the trip a great deal. This spin would take me in the opposite direction around the loop. Shopped a bit, and boarded the unit which soon filled up fairly well - including an oddly smelly young chap who was downwind of me every time the door opened. Not pleasant, but marginally preferable to the racket coming from a large group of Yorkshire youngsters in the next carriage who whooped and hollered their way around most of the line with me! Headphones on, I enjoyed the stunning views from the window - including some sudden bursts of sunshine as we exited tunnels and crossed viaducts over deep valleys. This line rarely gets a mention in 'great railway journey' articles, but it's certainly worthy in my view. Noted a couple of well-preserved station buildings along the way too - not least at Brockholes where the branch to Holmfirth once diverged. Surprisingly soon we arrived at Huddersfield under darkening skies. It was incredibly cold on the platform, with a strange icy rain blowing in under the canopy. Watched the busy station operations for a while, before hopping onto a slightly earlier than planned service to Leeds.

Feeling grim now, with the cold firmly taking hold - so bunkered down in the coffee shop and necked further industrial quantities of strong coffee. Made some notes about the previous week for future reference - there was a lot to remember, and these stocktaking sessions have become rather important in some ways. As I settled back to finish my coffee, the sun streamed through the roof of the art-deco Northern Concourse. Wandered off to find my train home feeling oddly encouraged. The 15:12 to Penzance started here - which meant no great scramble for seats. Found my spot and settled in for the long ride back via Wakefield, then retracing my steps from Sheffield. As we sped south through Derbyshire, the sun began to set in the clear skies. Reasoned that despite a strange week, today had been a good cobweb-clearing trip out. Even a few minutes delay and the wait for a slightly later connection home didn't seem to matter too much. It's good to be back to normal, even if it's only these journeys which are anything close to it!

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Posted in Railways on Monday 3rd January 2011 at 10:57pm

Today was something of an afterthought. The way that the Christmas and New Year holidays fell made it possible to have an unbroken ten-day stint off work at the cost of only two days of annual leave. This lured me into breaking my usual rule of working between the holidays in an effort to get back to normality. However, the timing also meant that I could easily have gone several weeks without a weekend trip. The effort to get the First Great Western diversions a few days back notwithstanding, I had nothing planned until 8th January - clearly not an easy prospect given how much I rely on these trips. So, whilst sorting out some travel for later in the month I booked an outing for today. Assured that the first train of the day would run, despite being a Bank Holiday I rose early for the first time in what felt like an age, and struggled down to the station. To my horror, as I waited for the train - happy just to be out early with a day of travel ahead - snow began to fall again! However, perhaps fate would smile today. We paused at Uphill Junction for a strangely long time and the ever present threat of points failure occurred to me. Sure enough, the guard walked through the train telling people there was a problem. However, we were soon underway via the mainline, avoiding Weston, and made it to Worle pretty much on time. Thanked my lucky stars and settled in for the rest of the run to Bristol.

Of course, as it was a Bank Holiday nothing was open at Temple Meads. Settled for a fairly poor coffee onboard my next train instead and enjoyed a very quiet run up to Birmingham. The sun struggled up somewhere during this, and I was gratified to note that there didn't seem to be any snow falling - despite fairly sizeable chunks of the fall a week or two back still lingering beside the line. A relatively late breakfast and better coffee at New Street, before heading down to get the service to Liverpool. This trip was a deliberate unravelling of one which occurred in the middle of last year. That one too had been booked late, in less than sensible circumstances, and looking back it seemed like a fairly decent day out. However, it also signalled the start of a very confusing time for me which I realised I was just, rather painfully, beginning to emerge from. So, today was about revisiting locations to erase their significance - a technique I'd used many times before of course, to varied effect. The trip up through Crewe and Runcorn was pleasant enough - the warm unit making me a little sleepy as busied myself with people-watching my way to Merseyside.

On arrival, I headed straight out into town, which was hidden under grey clouds threatening snow. It was, it must be said, absolutely freezing and I wasn't sorry to drag myself across town to the coffee shop I'd visited last time. Today it was very quiet, and I had time for a brief chat with the barista before settling down to collect my thoughts on the trip so far. I wondered if it was my beard which seemed to make me more approachable to people these days? Or did I perhaps just look haunted and desperate - I'm aware either was equally possible today. Spent a while writing and drinking lots of coffee before heading off, my symbolic mission accomplished. Wandered by the book and record shops practically next door, but resisted spending money. Headed back to Lime Street via a much-needed toilet break in a shopping centre. Here was where the real Liverpool was hiding. In the bowels of this cut-price mall people were pushing and jostling for the remaining rump of the sales. The air was full of shouts in guttural Scouse accents, and there was little regard for polite excuse-mes. I loved it - this erased perfectly the distant troubled thoughts I'd brought with me, and made me engage with real life again. I strode back to the station with renewed vigour - even holding my own in banter with a fairly rude beggar!

The journey back had been designed for relaxation - a quick dash across to Manchester Piccadilly, with time to shop and wander a bit before the direct train back to Bristol. Travelling early allowed me daylight at least as far as Stafford, and it was good to have a long trek ahead of me and a stack of fine new music to listen to. I wondered if it was still snowing at home, or if the line through Weston was fixed - but decided not to check and just to enjoy the ride. Today, despite it's largely unplanned nature and rather maudlin mission wasn't all about endings. It was also about the beginning of a whole new year of wanderings...

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Posted in Railways on Saturday 18th December 2010 at 11:45pm

The advice was, of course, not to travel. This is never advice I've taken - not even when the earthquake hit Los Angeles in 1994, or when I struggled up to see Bob Dylan in Hammersmith despite the tremendous storms of 1990. In recent times, I've come to need these strange weekend journeys to give me perspective, a bit of certainty and a chance to observe life as others see it. This would be the last chance to get out before a patchy and lazy festive season where, despite a couple of trips booked, I could easily go for some days languishing at home. On that basis, I once again decided to ignore the advice and see how Britain was coping with the cold weather. This started with me stepping out into around seven inches of fresh, crisp snow. I didn't mind snow - it was easier to deal with than the ice which plagued the country last February, and despite being a tiring and slow walk I enjoyed being one of the first few to venture out into the strangely silent morning. As ever though, First Great Western had fallen at the first hurdle. The 05:48 was at Taunton, and as National Rail Enquiries assured us, definitely not cancelled! However, it wasn't moving - despite trains heading south, the expresses spraying us with snow from the rails. The snow had driven a few passengers from their cars and they began an amusing attempt to get information from the Help Point - I've determined that these are essentially people reading from National Rail's website and utterly unable to assist, and they proved this to be the case admirably today. As a predicted delay of 1 hour and 17 minutes finally appeared to replace the laughably optimistic 'On Time' I slipped home to get a coffee and warm up. Eventually underway, albeit slowly as we were the first train to head north, I settled in for what could be a very interesting day...

The next potential issue was dealt with quickly and simply. A quick word with the Train Manager on the 08:00 CrossCountry service about the delay and he was happy to honour the ticket. So, having recovered a bit of time, I set off for Birmingham with the sun just about rising. Noted that the snow wasn't quite so deep north of Bristol. Contemplated my next move on the warm, lazy trip to the Midlands, thoroughly enjoying being on the move again. Paused to get breakfast at New Street, before heading down to the slightly delayed 09:36 to Crewe. Lots of services seemed to be delayed on their inward journey's no doubt because of staff having trouble getting into work. Pondered that it was a shame FGW couldn't have been more honest about this - just attributing delays to "the weather" felt lazy, untrue and seemed to feed the almost paranoid approach that is developing here to inclement conditions. The 350 was very warm, and I settled in for a sleepy hour's trip. Again, things didn't seem nearly as bad up here, but the sky had turned a baleful purple-grey and the light behind the fog seemed to have dimmed. At Crewe, I found chaos. In common with elsewhere, there had been early delays, but things were running fairly well. The passengers however were milling around, griping and moaning, being utterly selfish and failing to follow staff instructions. There had been a failure on a Voyager which had necessitated some changes of train, and it appeared that most of the world was waiting for the 10:43 to Holyhead with me! When the Pendolino arrived, checked to see the locomotive heading in to be coupled up, and dived into the vestibule. At least with the crush of passengers this would be fairly warm! The coupling process was slow and noisy, leading to a few alarmed glances from my fellow travellers. Finally away, late but back on track - with my last mainline locomotive haulage of the year underway.

57308 awaits the road at Chester
57308 awaits the road at Chester

Arrived at Chester to more snowy scenes, and took the opportunity to get a quick snap of 57308 before it headed off to North Wales. The station was busy, but a little more sensible than Crewe. Grabbed a decent coffee from the shop which has popped up since my last visit, and headed for the bay platform where the Voyager to London was due shortly. Thinking back, it was exactly year ago I did this same trip. The direct Chester-London service had recently been introduced, and I liked the idea of an end-of-year spin down the West Coast Main Line. Last year, too, snow had fallen in the Midlands, though we'd seen none of it in the south west. Thus, the snowy scenes in Warwickshire and Buckinghamshire had been rather quaint. Back to the present and I was largely sick of snow, but I was to see plenty more of it as we set off for the capital. After a stop at Crewe, we headed onwards via the Trent Valley, non-stop to Milton Keynes. I snoozed my way through the early part of the journey after my early and frustrating start, but woke to see we had plunged into a blizzard. Beside the line, the roads were in chaos, with cars abandoned at crazy angles and people milling about on the carriageway. We plunged onwards, keeping fairly good time. A bit of a hold-up at a congested Milton Keynes Central - scene of my horrible weekend early in the year - then onwards to Euston. We seemed to be in a fairly long queue of trains, but made slow progress south. I'd allowed plenty of time for my cross-london transfer in the hope of some fill-in moves like last year, but having heard the Underground was not functioning well, I'd decided to just head across town. Euston was surprisingly calm - Virgin seemed to be conveying the message "we'll get you there, but you might be a bit late" pretty well, and incoming trains were being turned around swiftly, with few cancellations - and those confined to the most intensively served routes. Given the criticism of the railway over the last couple of weeks - and my earlier experience with FGW, this was good to see.

A surprisingly quick Circle Line ride to Paddington followed, having to flag only one packed train for another a minute behind. Paddington was, sadly, not quite as organised as Euston, with staff pretty much in hiding and the service in a confusing mess! The plan of running a broadly hourly service on routes which were open was working well, and after killing a couple of hours with reading, writing and coffee-drinking, I found my way onto the set which would work the 18:00 as per my booking. We we're going to be a bit late - but no problem. Then, rather rudely, a platform attendant barked into the carriage "Get off! This isn't going to Bristol now!". I packed my things and wandered out, asking him what the plan was. He suggested that this would form a Cheltenham service as they'd just started running trains via Stroud again, and that the 18:30 to Bristol was a definite runner. I returned to the concourse to spot a flaw in this plan - there were no other HSTs in the station, and no arrivals due before about 19:00. A further problem had developed at Didcot where a set had failed. I pointed this out to the platform staff, who professed total ignorance of any problem and asserted that the 18:30 would run. I asked "with what?" and was reminded that they "didn't need to be told how to run a railway". I hung around until the service was, inevitably, cancelled - delivering my hardest stare at the rather sheepish looking staff before wandering over to the gates in front of Platform 5, where the next arrival was due. Indeed, the incoming train was quickly called as the 19:00. This was a bonus as it went directly home to Highbridge. Also spotted a fairly senior FGW manager already onboard, so it looked like a runner. And so, about twenty minutes late, and packed to the gunnels with several trains full of people, we were off!

However, FGW had not yet served up their last indignity of the day. At Bristol, the Train Manager confessed that the staff to work the service forward had not materialised off another service. We sat for some time, until around 21:30 he announced that due to "a serious incident onboard the train" it was now cancelled. Rumours of violence and sexual assaults were rife, but I couldn't see any police activity around the train, and the staff seemed to content to let us all wander off without summoning any witnesses. Pondered this as I froze on the platform, then froze again on the defective 158 which formed the now very busy 21:55. The train had another unit attached to the back, but the guard didn't open it up - meaning we all froze, and most people had to get off on the icy, uncleared platform ends. Another fine bit of FGW planning.

Whilst trudging home, I pondered the day - it had been a mixed bag of some fine efforts to run a service despite the challenges, and a for our local operator, a total capitulation to circumstances. I also had the uneasy sense that FGW had chosen to bury some fairly bad decision-making and poor operating in the snow. Once again, information was incredibly poor - and while the online resources were excellent, people on the ground and on the end of the 'phone didn't have the tools or the skills to use this information well. But, I managed 517 miles today when in theory the critics would suggest I shouldn't have bothered. I never felt stranded or worried, and with a bit of determination I got where I was headed and home. It's the only way to travel, folks!

Movebook Link

Posted in Railways on Saturday 4th December 2010 at 11:46pm

The year has flown by, and it seemed like only yesterday that I was ankle deep in snow and slithering into work absurdly early as part of our emergency response. So, eyeing the forecasts with trepidation I'd expected this trip to fall victim to the weather. In particular, Scotland seemed totally paralysed by heavy snowfall, and it seemed unlikely we'd get anywhere - let alone north of Edinburgh. However, against all the odds and thanks to the persistence of Spitfire I found myself speeding up to Preston yesterday under cold, blue skies and with some amazing wintry scenes to enjoy. It seemed that the east had taken the brunt of the weather, and I was amazed to find the pavements of Preston clear and dry. It was a little different this morning though, as a night of rain and fog had left a carpet of slippery half-frozen snow underfoot. Allowed lots of time - which meant an even earlier start - and headed down to the station. The stock arrived soon after, and I was horrified to find "The Green Knight" in the rake. This coach, some sort of hybrid of First and Standard Class, is horrible. Narrow seats with no leg-room, but with full size tables which take all the available space. It was also very, very cold. Soon rectified, with a bonus move right to the front of the train, next to the loco. News from the east was that others had made the slog through deep snow up to Huddersfield. Things were going to plan!

55022 on arrival at Edinburgh Waverley
55022 on arrival at Edinburgh Waverley

The morning began with a fairly good run through Leeds and York to reach the East Coast. Services were heavily disrupted here, and we didn't see many trains at all on our northward journey. On some stretches, speed was limited to 80mph but this didn't seem to unduly affect things, and the locomotive performed perfectly given the challenging circumstances. Once the sun rose, it was clear just how much snow had fallen over this side of the country - but despite this, the word was that we were still permitted to head for Dundee and wouldn't need the contingency plan. Feeling sleepy and a little rough, I decided on a quiet morning and a snooze here and there.

Woke as we approached Edinburgh, amazed at the scenes. Cars hadn't moved for days, and the city was unrecognisable under it's white carpet. The station was a little chaotic, with replacement buses queuing down the ramp and turning on the concourse. Made a dash for a photo, then over to the shops for sustenance. Didn't really feel good by this point, but the idea of pressing on over the Forth kept me going. Soon back on board, and with a spirited start, passing Haymarket Depot and turning north towards the bridge. Fife in the snow was stunning, but it was clearly pretty cut off too. Taking the longer route through Cowdenbeath, we learned that rather than attempt a double run-around at Dundee with potentially frozen couplings, we would turn at Thornton Junction, with 47500 leading us into our destination. This would position 55022 for the long journey home. We arrived at a deserted and snow-bound Dundee station to find staff fairly amazed to see us. As the display told us "All Trains are Cancelled", but even this quiet scene didn't deter one jobsworth from trying to prevent photography on the station!

Ready to head south, 'Royal Scots Grey' waits at Dundee
Ready to head south, 'Royal Scots Grey' waits at Dundee

Slithered briefly into town, got a drink and had a quick look around. The pavements were treacherously icy, and surprising crowds were out taking advantage of the dry, sunny but freezing cold day. Tried to slog over to the supermarket but the road was pretty difficult to negotiate so settled for a wander back to the station to watch our train come back from the sidings. Feeling really grim now, and I suspect having fallen victim to the bug my nephews had been suffering from - although another theory about the exhaust fumes from the neighbouring loco had some currency for a while when others started to get sleepy! We were soon off again, heading into the slowly sinking sun and showering clouds of snow on the trackside as we headed back by the more direct route. A chance to catch up and chat on the return journey, between attempts to sleep off the sickness and headache which had developed. Again, no trains around until Edinburgh, where once again the station seemed to be in panic. I settled in for a sleepy journey south and by York had begun to feel a little better. Enjoyed the last leg of the journey watching Yorkshire and Lancashire pass by as we sped back to Preston.

Despite feeling grim at times, this was a fitting end to the touring year. It was good to make it up to Scotland again too, when it seemed almost no-one else dared to try! It's been a long and varied year on the rails, with lots of really remarkable trips achieved due to no small effort on the part of the organisers. There have been one or two disappointments along the way too, but many of the most the memorable things - over 2000 miles of Deltic haulage, a fantastic weekend in the Highlands and a truly groundbreaking trip to East Anglia - have occurred thanks to Spitfire. Thanks folks, and I hope to see you next year!

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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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