Posted in Railways on Saturday 26th September 2009 at 11:45pm
Despite an early start in the darkness, I'd been looking forward to this trip for a while. Something about the simple 'there and back again' nature of it appealed after some complicated tours lately with plenty of drama and excitement. I was also very keen to visit the Swanage Railway - and what better way than to cover the entire branch from the connection at Worgret Junction? The advantage of the Crewe Arms Hotel is needing to get up only a short time before the train. Arrived at the station to find the Up Sleeper still in the platform and not a sign of coffee. Lingered on the overbridge until the sleeper departed, and soon afterwards our train could be heard approaching - unusually for a charter using platform 6. Descended to see 37706 leading 37516 - an old stalwart and a winning engine for me respectively. Indeed, I'd wanted a ride behind 37516 since seeing it gleaming in the sunshine at Eastleigh in may. Soon seated and away on time, with a tiny glint of light beginning to appear in a cloudy sky. Given the amazingly good weather over the past few days, I had to admit that this didn't look promising for our day at the seaside...
The route was pretty simple today - along the WCML, then Wolverhampton, a diversion through Bescot and into Birmingham New Street picking up along the way. From here, the train snaked over the tracks to use the curve to St Andrew's Junction, then took the connection at Bordesley Junction to access the former Great Western lines to Tyseley. Nothing much close enough to see at Tyseley depot, disappointingly - despite a number of preserved locos clearly being on the shed. At Banbury, our coach filled up and I found myself chatting to a veteran of the Cumbrian trips over the last month. I'd also been spotted at Shackerstone last week it seems - a small world indeed this railway business. Along with the party from Sheffield and Cheshire across the bay, there was quite a lively atmosphere as we sped around the avoiding curve at Didcot, then took the rarely used Reading West curve past the depot and onto the Basingstoke line. With a clear run, and having missed some of our passing stops on the way down, we were running consistently early, with both locos performing superbly. Blasted through Eastleigh - a good number of photographers out on Campbell Road bridge - and unusally passed non-stop through Southampton.
After setting down briefly at Bournemouth, we headed west through Poole - I calculated I haven't done this bit of line for about 13 years. Somewhere along the way, the sun had broken through and the south coast was apparently enjoying a pretty blistering indian summer. Slowed to a stop at Worgret Junction before curving away from the mainline. A very slow trundle down the branch after our speedy trip so far, passing the site of the Furzebrook Oil Depot and pausing at Motala Ground Frame to access the Swanage Railway. Soon underway again, passing the striking ruins of Corfe Castle and the nearby village, which looks equally ancient and ramshackle. Amazed at the feel of remoteness on the Isle of Purbeck, as I always think of the south coast as being one long strip of populous resorts. After passing a huge amount of stored stock and engines, finally slowed for Swanage station - our destination. Alighted at the wonderfully preserved Southern Region terminus to find crowds enjoying the late summer sunshine. Fought my way to the front of the train for a picture, but couldn't quite get a decent angle as the platforms end right on the pavement of the main street! Resorted to the picnic area beside the tracks for a few shots before wandering in to the town to explore.
Swanage was busy - perhaps a little frustratingly so, because it proved quite difficult to get around. What surprised me, having lived in some of the less successful seaside resorts in the country, was how mixed the demographic was - sizeable groups of retired people mingling with young families and a few hen and stag type revellers in a fair approximation of harmony. It also struck me that the economic downturn has yet to bite hard here, and there were few closed shops in the busy main streets. Got a bite to eat, and found a shady spot near the floral clock - did all seaside towns once have these? Watched boats on the sea and families on the beach. Wandered back to the station with the sense that Swanage was something of a lost gem. The presence of a good preserved railway right at the heart of the town just added to this. Wandered up onto the picnic area again to watch the resident 08 shunting stock out of the bay platform to free this up for a DMU service and thus allow our train back into the station. Realised that the entire bank on this side of the station was alive with thousands of rather docile wasps! Beat a hasty retreat to a safe distance to watch operations. Next, our stock was hauled back into the station by 33103. It would have been good to have had this on a service - but it wasn't to be this time. Soon back on board with the crowds drifting back from town, the beach or the pubs. Departure was a few minutes down, and we started our lazy progress back to the mainline.
The return journey was very entertaining - aside from a check at Southcote Junction due to signal failure and a further snarl up near Didcot, we made steady progress. However these delays set us back, and catching up on a tight timescale was tricky. Much merriment in the coach as people speculated on the identity of various prominent members of the WNXX forum to varying degrees of accuracy. With 37516 at the front, the noise from outside was pretty impressive at times. No need to guess at our lateness either, as for some obscure reason we were showing on National Rail Enquiries as a service train!
Finally rolled into platform 12 at Crewe around 30 minutes late, after a very good day out. There are, it seems, some very ambitious plans afoot for next years trips. I can only hope there are a few simple ones like this too - a chance to just enjoy the trip and end up somewhere interesting, with a few laughs along the way.
Posted in Railways on Saturday 19th September 2009 at 10:34pm
I've become used to people describing the Battlefield Railway, and particularly the Shackerstone Diesel group in hushed tones. A preservation group with a home fleet of well-maintained, beautifully kept locomotives - but in an almost impossible to get to location. Everywhere I went at railway events I'd spot the ubiquitous 'SN' depot insignia on bags, mugs and notebooks - people were impressed with this bunch, and didn't mind who knew it. So when this gala was advertised with a bus link to Nuneaton station, I wasted no time in booking. It was a tough call between this and Pathfinder's jaunt up to North Wales with D1015, but curiosity to see this line in operation got the better of me - along with a busy month ahead and a need to keep the purse strings in check. I travelled up to the Midlands yesterday, and had a pleasant evening out in Birmingham with relatives before setting off early this morning. However, a second consecutive night out on the town (which also included a trip to the legendary Wellington pub with its many real ales on offer) had left me feeling a little out of sorts - and I dozed through the journey to New Street, sleepily changed trains and only really began to surface on the unit to Nuneaton where the sun began to shine through the windows very strongly. We were in for a hot day it seemed. The last leg of the journey was conducted in a coach, winding through the Warwickshire and Leicestershire countryside before finally arriving at Shenton station, with the resident DMU chugging away at the platform. I'd finally reached the Battlefield Railway!
The DMU started things with a complete run of the line to Shackerstone, and this was useful in getting my bearings - while staff puzzled over my 'ticketweb' purchased rover. The line is around four and a half miles long, and is part of the former Nuneaton to Ashby route. Population around the line is sparse, the only town of note being Market Bosworth. However the station there is in disrepair following vandalism and trains don't currently stop. Once at Shackerstone, the intensive operation started in earnest, with the next loco hauled departure at 09:00. I could see a yard full of interesting locos behind the station, but soon realised that one of the rather tricky bits of this gala would be that you were either on the train or elsewhere photographing things and exploring. The layovers between trains were too short to combine the two. Consulted the timetable and decided that the 73/25 combination, whilst very tempting, was eclipsed by the bigger engines on offer today, so decided that would be my break between trips. Soon off Shackerstone with the resident 33 on the front and 47640 'University of Strathclyde' on the rear to haul us back. Briefly hopped off at Shenton and noted that with the long train blocking the foot-crossing, and the other loco way off the platform there were few photo opportunities. Settled in for the run back, with the alternating aromas of diesel and the excellent griddle car!
Posted in Railways on Saturday 12th September 2009 at 10:50pm
There's had been something of an ad-hoc feel to this whole weekend - planned late, and booked on a whim to use a discounted ticket. As the whole thing sort of crept up on me during the week, found myself dashing about to prepare for the trip up to Birmingham after work yesterday. Despite some last minute work-related calls on the train, things had calmed down and I'd had a pretty good night's sleep before a thankfully not too early start. Over to New Street, just minutes away from my hotel, for breakfast and a wander out to the end of the platforms where the daylight promised a pretty good morning. Watched the trains arriving for a while until the tell-tale high intensity lights in the tunnel signalled the arrival of our train with 66414 'James the Engine' at the front. Time for a quick photograph before a quick walk along the train to find my seat - thankfully this time around in a decent FO, rather than the odd vehicle WCRC supplied on my last Spitfire excursion. Indeed, enduring that vehicle on an extended trip had earned today's discount! Settled in for the first leg of the journey north - with our destination once again Carlisle. People have actually begun to ask me what the attraction of this border city is - have I some illicit assignation or secret? I'm not sure quite why so many tours have headed this way lately, but on each occasion the weather has been good, and it's been an enjoyable trip. There may even be one last jaunt before the year is out if things go to plan too!
Our route curved west, through Telford and the connection to the newly opened Donnington Freight branch, before turning north again at Shrewsbury. After picking up at a variety of smaller stations which rarely see a tour, we covered the now rather popular Gresty Road curve into Basford Hall Yard at Crewe. Here, after a quick rehersal, we set off via the Liverpool Independent lines to rejoin the WCML, now with 37229 and 37510 leading. 37510 in particular was a winner for me, having reportedly not worked a passenger train for a good few years. We made excellent progress with this pair of locos, until a little north of Preston where we came to a shuddering halt. Soon heard that 37229 had shut down with no coolant and fire bells sounding. 37510 pulled us forward into the Up and Down Goods Loop at Carnforth, where after a brief delay, it was decided to put 66414 back on the front. Run around effected, we set off 59 minutes behind schedule. This meant a much shorter stop in Carlisle, but given recent visits I wasn't too concerned. The sun was shining, 37510 was still assisting the 66, and we had the delights of Shap ahead of us. The train made the climb with no problems, apparently at a little over 50mph. Having said that, tackling this climb with one 37 and a pair of dead locos could have been problematic! A good, fast run into Carlisle for a break of an hour.
However, an hour was barely long enough for all the activity going on almost as soon as we arrived. Firstly, 70013 'Oliver Cromwell' was steaming gently away with a good number of enthusiasts watching as the stock was propelled south out of the station. Almost immediately on our arrival, 66412 arrived with 37682 in tow. These two locos were due to be attached - and with 66414 hauling the ailing 37229 off to Kingmoor, there were plenty of movements to photograph. With most of the manoeuvres done, headed over to grab a drink and enjoy the sunshine which was now very strong. Back over to the platform to prepare for the arrival of our train for the return. 66412 did the honours, and would be at the rear, letting 37682 - another winner for me - lead 37510 on the first leg of the return. On boarding, found the stock very hot and stuffy, with cable-ties restricting the small windows in the Mk 1 stock. The tight clearances via Maryport have usually meant the use of Mk 2 air-conditioned stock, so not surprised by the warnings. Brief concern there may be trouble from a small group in the carriage who broke off the tie and argued medical grounds for keeping cool, but all quietened down eventually. The long, rather dull section to Maryport soon passed, and windows were very gratefully opened as we curved alongside the Irish Sea in truly fantastic conditions. Spent a good bit of the coastal journey at a droplight enjoying the sound of the locos and the fresh sea air.
This time, we took the line through Barrow-in-Furness rather than the much shorter avoiding line, passing the seemingly deserted but huge Light Maintenance Depot here. Soon curving back into the loop at Carnforth to let a couple of fast trains pass before setting off south at speed. We stayed on the WCML until Warrington, where we took the Chester line, gaining time as we went. Finally arrived at Chester around 10 minutes before due time. The station was busy with natives in their finery seemingly preparing for a night out in Crewe, surprisingly enough! Watched the fun for a while before a 10 minute early departure with 66412 again at the helm. After passing Crewe electric and marvelling at the locos abandoned to the elements outside, we slewed across the lines and crossed onto what is a fairly rare bit of track, linking the former Depot departure line to the Chester Independent lines. All seemed to be going well until we came to a halt well short of Salop Goods Junction, which we needed to clear to get back round onto the Salop line. After a brief wait, we were informed that Basford Hall was full of ballast trains and that the signaller wasn't expecting us. All the signs of another Gresty Road farce were assembling, when after a delay of around ten minutes, and actually at our booked time, we began to move off north with the 37s leading again. It was hard to appreciate what was happening in the growing gloom, but we soon found the train curving to the east, and passing the back of the coal sidings, with the Salop lines and Diesel depot at our left. It soon dawned that we'd done a fairly innocuous and nameless link back into Platform 12 of the station which the assembled BLS contingent couldn't recall being done in at least the past 30 years of railtours. Somewhat elated, so didn't even notice the brief delay while the driver again changed ends to take us south, the 66 in charge once again.
Once on the Salop lines again, things ran fairly smoothly and we made our booked set-down stops only a few minutes late, thanks to the early running accumulated on the run into Chester. Reflecting on the tour as we approached the Midlands once again, noted that the mishaps with locos and track had actually only improved the day - and brought back a bit of that feeling of 'the old days' when you never knew quite what would turn up or where it might take you. Of course, I don't remember anything but the tail end of those days - and for me today was just a good old-fashioned railtour with interesting traction and even more interesting track! What's more, it was a relaxing and enjoyable day which had taken the pressure off just for a little while. Another good 'un from Spitfire - long may they continue.
Posted in Railways on Saturday 5th September 2009 at 10:30pm
Some readers may recall my attempt to cover the last stretch of the West Coast Mainline towards the end of 2008. Since then people have often asked me if that's all I have left to cover of the UK network. Well, absolutely not - because I do try to cover freight lines, and there are still the odd corners of the country I've never quite managed to get to - not least Pwlhelli - but that's mostly because I'm a bit embarrassed to say it wrong when I buy the ticket. However, the ten or so miles of line between Colwich Junction and Stone is somewhat symbolic, as it's the last bit of proper mainline railway I haven't covered. It's also an absurdly easy bit to cover - served regularly by London-Manchester expresses and a vital link in Virgin's Very High Frequency timetable. So, having figured out the service pattern, with the WCML upgrade reportedly complete and with a spare weekend - I decided it was time to try again.
Things started well, but with pangs of uncertainty. This weekend marked another "last ever" (so they say) in that the summer-only locomotive hauled Weymouth train was to run for the last time. Since Weymouth is one of my least favourite journeys, and because most right-thinking people didn't really expect DB Schenker to produce two working class 37s in time, I'd stuck to my original plan. So, there was a little regret as my London-bound train passed Barton Hill depot and the sight of 37670 and 37401 burbling away merrily at the head of the stock. Then I thought of the interminable journey between Castle Cary and Dorchester and didn't feel quite so bad. Instead, settled in for a snooze, waking up in time for the interesting bits of the journey to London. Couldn't shift a nagging headache, which a dash around the Circle line to Euston Square just seemed to exacerbate - so grabbed Ibuprofen and coffee and soon felt better. Watched the crowds at Euston, and assisted a gaggle of older women from Birmingham who couldn't find the Underground despite the very large sign explaining it was a few feet away. Cue much screeching and cackling laughter which actually made me feel worryingly at home! Soon onto a Pendolino (fittingly 053 - the last one at present) and gathering speed out into the suburbs.
With three trains an hour and being one of the quieter weekends of the year, the train was almost deserted. Virgin's Saturday service in First Class isn't quite what it manages in the week - but still provides a much better environment than the horrible standard class in these trains. Sipped my complimentary drinks, and began reading Stuart Maconie's "Pies and Prejudice". A friend lent this to me as I complained I'd run out of things to read at present. It seemed fitting to read a book about 'the north' as I headed that way. Hard not to compare it (as indeed Maconie does) to Charles Jennings' rather sarcastic effort "Up North" which I'd read a good few years back and seemed to be the work of someone gripping Bill Bryson's coattails rather tightly. Maconie had the disadvantage of finding me a much more seasoned traveller - with a southerner's eye view of many of the places he mentions - Crewe, Warrington, Bury etc. However, soon found myself zipping speedily through Lichfield Trent Valley and turned my attention back to the rails. I actually began to get rather nervous at this point - a lot of things seem to be spinning out of control just now, but surely I of all people can figure out the right train to get on?
I needn't have worried. We began to slow, then lurched to the right over pointwork - beside me was Colwich Memorial Garden - planted and cared for until his death by a local man, Alf Taylor in honour of Driver Eric Goode, the victim of a terrible crash here in 1986. As we began to speed away from the junction I felt rather pleased things had worked out at last. The line itself wasn't inspiring - there are no stations on this stretch anymore, and indeed never were more than a couple. The scenery is rather dull too. But the important point is that this was mission accomplished at last. As we curved gracefully through Stone station, now reopened after years of being abandoned during the WCML upgrade, I felt pretty content. I was relaxing, reading and out on the rails - can there be many better pursuits? Enjoyed the rest of my journey to Manchester and soon arrived in Piccadilly under brooding stormy skies. Decided to take a walk into the city centre - not something I do often. After a browse around a couple of shops, came across the Metrolink works - still no trams and huge sections of the busy pedestrianised centre fenced off and churned up. This squeezes the crowds into two channels at each side of the street, so I plodded along with them, and found myself outside the Arndale Centre. Since I needed to purchase stationery, I wandered in. Needless to say, I didn't like it. Cavernous and mostly full of sportswear, this echoing retail horror is everything I dislike about modern city centres. The weird ambience of the places alone makes me feel prone to panic attacks. Dived into WH Smiths, complained about them having no A5 casebound 'Black and Red' notebooks and dashed out as quickly as possible into Exchange Square. Watched the obligatory 'Manchester Wheel' which it seems all cities must have now, before plunging back into the crowds and making my way back to the station via a circuitous route taking in some of the lesser visited bits of the city centre.
After a break and a chance to answer some email which had piled up during the past couple of busy weeks, boarded the 16:07 back to Bristol. A quiet journey, with noticably fewer passengers around than have been evident in recent weeks. Read, listened to a couple of podcasts and generally enjoyed the chance for a quiet trip back. As we approached Bristol, I was pleased to note we were pretty much on time, because my plan was to intercept the Weymouth train as it arrived back into Temple Meads. As soon as we stopped, headed back up platform 7 to get the usual shot of the train arriving. Then, a quick dash back under the subway onto platform three where a huge crowd had developed around the locos. A real sense of occasion, as a number of familiar faces arrived including the Spitfire team and some 37 bashers I haven't seen out in a good while. The staff at Temple Meads seemed just a little concerned at the developing crowd - but mostly it was a good natured gathering. This might be the last scheduled service train to be 37 worked, which made things somewhat bittersweet but didn't detract from the atmosphere as the trainshed filled with diesel fumes!
So a strange day, with lots of endings in some ways. However, more reminders of why I find myself returning to the rails while things seem to get ever more confusing and complicated around me.
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.