Posted in Railways on Saturday 21st July 2012 at 10:26pm

Lately, I seem to have given up a lot of things. This is a habit I have, of undertaking a huge mental tidying up. Sometimes - just like in a physically frenzied cleaning session - you throw away things you never really meant to. In the heat of this confusing, angry summer I'd managed to do just that. Letting a few doubts and externally fuelled fears get under my skin, I'd parked my music blog indefinitely. Quietly, calmly and without undue drama though - which is not the usual style around here. But already, less than a week into the situation, I was feeling bored, purposeless and dull. The only thing I was finding motivation to write about was the impending Olympics - and given vast areas of my brain to range freely around, this was in danger of becoming an obsession. The great fear was that in a few weeks time it would be gone, and the legacy was a longer term project. Granted it would deliver it's own losses and controversies - but I needed to fill my mind up. In the long term for sure, but initially - just this weekend jaunt. I'd set out when planning for this sparse summer, to do a West Midlands Day Ranger today. I'd booked the tickets to Birmingham and back, and left it at that. There was a point towards the end of the week when I scrabbled for cheap tickets to London - desperate to get to the area with no clear purpose. But sense and financial constraints prevailed and I found myself on the train to Birmingham, only a vague plan and free to listen to music for a change. It was going to be a quiet sort of day...

On arriving and booking my ranger I decided to stick to the usual plan to start with. Off to Crewe on the 09:01 - a bustling but not packed train which took an hour to scud through misty Staffordshire and Cheshire. Lots to see around Crewe's depots, having not been here for a while - and it's also apparent that I'm well out of touch with the changes in the locomotive fleets. Congestion delayed our arrival which meant a pleasantly short wait for the 10:33 - a Euston-bound train. Luckily, given that it took nearly three hours to navigate the slow lines, it wasn't a viable option because I could still have easily changed my plans. Tweets and blog posts tumbled in, resistance to the excesses of Olympics was suddenly everywhere. Adidas had backed out of their tax exemption too. The sun was shining. Things felt possible. The train began to fill, and I decided to use the time and weather to do something I'd tried to do on these trips before - the crab-wise crossing of Warwickshire, which was a mess of bad connections and infrequent trips. So, off at Nuneaton. Last week a friend had mentioned that the Boris announcements were here too, and he was right. Dire warnings to "get ahead of the games" and the voice of the Mayor, strangely out of place up here. The reason became clear on the next leg - a rattling 153 to Coventry, which passed by the Ricoh Stadium. One of the football venues, this will in fact see use in anger before the main park, with the matches beginning next week. It was festooned with pink and maroon, and surrounded by Police officers. A pang of regret for not being stalking around the marshes today passed.

47790 leads the Northern Belle through Coventry
47790 leads the Northern Belle through Coventry

At Coventry I had a wait of about 45 minutes for one of the Crosscountry services which used the Kenilworth line to get to Leamington Spa. These used to be scarce trains, operated by Class 47s heading for Reading or Paddington, but now they're hourly with many going on to the South Coast. Minutes after arrival, a charter was announced and the Northern Belle slipped quietly in, the stewards waving to assembled enthusiasts. I managed an embarassed nod in return, before capturing both the locos for posterity. Time for coffee in the sunshine, watching a day and his enthusiastic daughter photographing trains. Managed a seat on the busy Voyager too, which was a surprise. I've always rather liked Royal Leamington Spa's station with its original Great Western features and broad views over the bridge towards the town. Having visited a couple of times in recent months, it was nice to have a little longer to spend here. It was busy, served by frequent trains and felt strangely comfortable. My own train was the 14:17 to Stratford-upon-Avon, one of a number of services which provide a practically all-stops Marylebone to Leamington service, before curving away through Hatton to the Warwickshire terminus. I'd last done this line in 2007, on the "Bard'n'Birch" railtour which suffered for following a week after one of the best tours I've ever done. On that occasion, due to signalling positions we got sort of wedged on the branch. No such problems this time, and we were soon arriving in the fine little station at Stratford-upon-Avon. A world away from the other Stratford which had been dominating my thoughts! Time for a coffee, and to watch life at this rather sparsely served end of the line. Contemplated the tracks curving away on what used to be the route to Cheltenham and thought how useful that could be nowadays. Eventually onto a cool, clean new Class 172 for the slow stop-start trip into Birmingham. A lucky signalling check at Tyseley meant a good look at the depot there, before hopping off at Moor Street. Having spent a little time here last visit, I decided to do the same and found a bench, dug out my book and watched life around the station.

The route home was strange - first the complicated roadworks outside Moor Street station, with an army of Hi-vis clad workmen employed to ask passers by if they are "aware the traffic now comes from that way?". At New Street, realised I'd a little less time than I thought, but still enough to shop and get coffee while I jotted my thoughts and watched the evening post-shopping, pre-clubbing lull appear. As ever, back on 1V65 to a surprisingly busy Bristol, with us just squeezing onto Platform 1. The Class 50 hauled charter was a little late, and my HST arrived just as it did, obscured by full platforms. Over the next fifteen minutes the train filled up - almost completely. I'd not given a second thought to the Harbour Festival, but these folks clearly had. It had been a slow, surprisingly relaxing day on the rails - which had almost taken my mind of other things.

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Posted in Railways on Saturday 7th July 2012 at 10:02pm

Despite regular gripes that there isn't much going on this summer, I have found myself with a number of fairly purposeful trips in recent times - and have a bunch of others planned. I'm not sure if this is just that opportunities I'd maybe normally have missed due to being off on a railtour have been seized or whether I'm finding ways of compensating for a working life pretty much devoid of purpose in recent times, but it's good to be able to get out, meet people and do things I'd maybe not normally choose to. That includes going to Barnsley... I'd passed through the town a number of times, but hadn't visited since April 2005, when I stopped off due to missing a connection at Meadowhall and wanting a run on a recently introduced Meridian, which then served the station. That time, I recall managing to upset a local to the point of rudeness, and still to this day didn't know quite how or why. So, today's trip promised to be an interesting reappraisal of somewhere which had left a poor impression.

The other complication was that Britain had been warned not to travel. It had rained, quite a bit in fact, and the drought of the early spring had become a deluge. The rail network had survived remarkably well - with a few common spots flooded and some landslips here and there, but mostly it was open for business. My first train was on time, and allowed welcome caffeine before the usual train to Birmingham. I'd split my ticket here to save money - but it turned out to be a blessing in some ways. The 09:03, which had originated down south and which I could have picked up at Bristol half-an-hour later, was cancelled. It had looked dubious earlier, and anyone heading north and already at the station had been ushered onto the 07:00. Conditions around Torbay were poor and services weren't getting out of the area as yet. Got my ticket stamped, had another coffee and headed for the 09:30. Oddly, found my usual seat free and despite being busy, had a fairly quiet and pleasant journey north - arriving only a few minutes later at Sheffield due to the quicker journey time on this service. A quick change onto a waiting Northern unit for Leeds, and I arrived in Barnsley only 11 minutes after I'd planned to. Typically, the friend I was meeting had some serious bus delays - so my triumph was short-lived, but this did allow an exploration of the station area. This has changed hugely since my last visit - with the large area between the town and the railway filled by a space-age, oddly Mediterranean styled building of terraces and mezzanines. It was light - the windows working like an unwelcome greenhouse in the surprising sunshine up here - and the facilities were excellent. This was not the functional, workmanlike Barnsley Interchange I recalled.

Fife seashore based art by Natasha Taylor
Fife seashore based art by Natasha Taylor

I was momentarily reminded of the rudeness from last time when I stood aside to let a buggy-pusher pass and the old folks behind me didn't agree with my chivalry. The decided I was "ignorant" but this was swiftly tempered by the jolly sparring of the couple in the excellent independent coffee shop, which reminded me of the pair who run the shop in Father Ted. Finally the bus arrived and we were out into Barnsley. The illusion created by the Interchange fell apart almost instantly, with the surrounding streets still rather drab and largely populated by closed shops and discount stores. A pedestrian walkway led through to The Civic, the main destination today. This is a rather fine Arts Centre building, spacious, including lots of different venue and exhibition spaces, and even fairly pleasant to look at. Entering via the rear, we ascended to the 28 degrees exhibition and spent a fine hour in the company of some surprising and intricate art and design work. Heading back out into the now rather warm afternoon, I had the rare pleasure of a tour of Barnsley from a near-native. This involved the markets - which rivalled most other town's efforts to be fair, and many poundshops and charity shops, one which had the unenviable accolade of being the only place I know to sell second-hand toilet seats. Finally, back to the Interchange for the journey down to Sheffield for a brief meeting.

I was surprised to find the Sheffield to Birmingham train reasonably quiet too, perhaps due to the rain - but this might be one worth using in future if it's as calm as this on a normal day. The run south was a little delayed, but very relaxing and pleasant. I'd had a fine day wandering and chatting to people - which bucked the usually rather solitary nature of these trips. I'd decided to break the trip south again at Birmingham which meant time for coffee and reflection, and the usual trains home which I rather look forward to these days. It had been an unusual day for me, but a memorable and pleasant one.

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Posted in Railways on Saturday 23rd June 2012 at 10:57pm

This jaunt has now become something of an annual pilgrimage to the far south west, usually involving a mixed band of locals and northerners, and always involving quite a bit of real ale. It was also of special significance this time around because Spitfire have not run a tour since February, and I've not been able to make one since November 2011. The reasons are mired in commercial intrigue and unfairness, but suffice to say it's not about the will or the drive - it's to do with the economics and legalities. So, I was looking forward to this opportunity to catch up with a lot of people I now see very rarely. I was though, believe it or not, less into the idea of being royally drunk once again. After a week off work, and facing a return on Monday to what could be a rather tricky situation involving a 'transfer' to Bristol, I needed this time to count. Nevertheless, we assembled - the usual band - for the first train out to Bristol. With the Taunton stop off, this was the only sensible way to the trip - but it did allow for breakfast, newspaper purchasing and a chat with some of the local spotter folks not travelling today, before the familiar pair of West Coast Railway Company Class 37s curved into Platform 6. It was time to head south...

The journey was relatively uneventful - decent company, civilised drinks and lots of catching up. Just like the previous recent tour to Cornwall, the times left us very much ahead by Exeter, and we had an unexpected half-hour break in Plymouth which allowed for a photo stop and an opportunity to get coffee. Back on board, and over the Royal Albert Bridge - currently shrouded for repairs - and into Cornwall. The train sadly wasn't particularly full given some uncertainty about the traction - or indeed whether it would run given the loss of it's 'sister' trip from Eastleigh. But here we began to set down for the various usual options - Eden Project, Lost Gardens of Heligan, Bodmin and Wenford Railway etc. I'd even toyed with a trip to Lands End myself to avoid drunkenness, but hadn't seen this through!

37676 and 37516 await departure from Penzance
37676 and 37516 await departure from Penzance

On arrival the usual pub circuit was reversed, heading along the harbourfront first, and working up the hill via the Dock, the Admiral Benbow and The Turks Head. In retrospect this didn't work well, arriving at those tiny pubs during the lunchtime and before the Mazey Day Parade meant busy, crowded and frustrating experiences. After a few pints, cut loose and wandered through the busy main street, grabbing a bit to eat and enjoying the atmosphere. The rain held off and whilst the traditional blazing sunshine wasn't around today, it was warm and dry at least. I headed back to the station for pictures and a pleasant chat with Spitfire folks while we awaited departure.

The return was the usual, sleepy affair with lots of well fed and watered passengers on board. I admit to snoozing myself, but woke for the assault on the Devon Banks and the fast run through Taunton and Exeter which saw us reclaim most of the time lost due to following a stopping train out of Cornwall. Having chased the rain north, it was gloomy at Bristol as I watched the train head north for Birgminham and headed over to catch the usual train home. It had been a relaxing end to a week of successful and varied travel - and the continuation of a tradition which we thought may have ended too.

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Posted in Railways on Saturday 16th June 2012 at 7:39pm

Considering the number and scope of the rail journeys I undertake, I really have a pretty trouble-free time of it. I know that some people experience minor disruptions as bigger issues because they travel less, but really I don't find myself feeling concerned very often. Some of this is down to expertise and knowing my way around the system, some of it is to do with a fairly easygoing approach to travelling. But today, the system confounded even me with its oddness! The plan was simple - as ever I'd break my trip to Scotland on the first day, to enable a more useful arrival time and meaning I could make a gig later that day. I'd settled on Preston some time ago as it promised a decent hotel at a good price, and a pleasant, sociably well-timed run into Glasgow on a Sunday morning. I'd also noted during the week that this would provide me with the chance to sample a new bit of Metrolink line in Manchester.

But it almost cost a lot more than planned. From the moment I woke, it was pretty clear the 05:48 wasn't going to run. This train is pretty reliable in fairness, and I was surprised when it wasn't reinstated before departure - but in the end it stayed cancelled and I was forced to travel on the 06:55. The guard did some enquiring and found out a member of staff had failed to show. He was sure my reservation on the 07:00 would be honoured later though, even after I described issues with CrossCountry I'd experienced. The CrossCountry guy at the Bristol Temple Meads gateline was equally sure. Get the ticket endorsed with the cancellation details, he'd seen my Season and knew why I'd booked from Bristol. Onto the 08:00, strangely enough into my booked seat too. Couldn't settle until I'd been gripped though... Eventually the train manager arrived. She listened to my tale and looked dubiously at the ticket, and my season. I told her that her colleague had advised this approach as she said "Well, he shouldn't - this is from Bristol". I reminded her about the combination rules for Seasons in the conditions of carriage, and asked why on earth I would double-pay the section of route my season covered. She still insisted she should charge me for a new ticket. At this point I lost my cool and pointed out that it wasn't my fault that the first train was cancelled, and that it was the railway's current ticketing practice which was making people split journeys anyway. She looked rather taken aback at this but backed down slightly. After working her way up the train issuing a few Penalty Fares here and there for people who were obviously trying it on, often with Railcards, she'd been forced to think about this one. Eventually she passed me to travel, but not before I'd managed to get seriously rattled.

I didn't really settle for the rest of the trip, expecting trouble with the new TM from Birmingham, but he really wasn't too interested in tickets from down south. So, I managed to settle a little into the journey via Stoke and Stockport despite my frustration. Even with an hour lopped off my time here, I'd still have time to spare - so losing only my planned coffee stop I headed down to the Metrolink. The plan was to get a Bury tram to Victoria then travel on to Oldham Mumps, using the former rail line which closed back in 2009 in a flurry of tour activity. But, no Bury tram arrived. The platform filled, endless Altrincham and Media City services passed, but no Bury tram. Eventually over 30 minutes later it arrived and the punters piled on. Lots of them! More squeezed in at Piccadilly Gardens. It was a warm morning, and none too pleasant on the tram, so I elected to hop off at Market Street - the first potential change point. I'm not keen on this stop, set in the middle of a busy shopping street, looking over the crowds of shoppers - but it would serve today. Extracted myself and let the tram leave - followed by three out-of-course Bury trams which were all but empty! Finally an Oldham Mumps service arrived and I joined, covering the familiar route to Victoria and the Bury lines, before curving away using a former railway alignment around Monsall. Running on this section was swift and sure, with the impressive Central Park station with it's slanted disc of a roof the only major feature. Leaping over the heavy rail lines, the tram tracks descended beside Newton Heath Depot, giving excellent views of the DMUs stabled. The left-hand line of the pair here is still a heavy rail access to Dean Lane Waste Transfer station and it's run-around loop, meaning trams bottleneck into a single line here. It didn't slow things much and we were soon onto the route of the former Oldham Loop line proper. Nearly all trace of the former rail line is gone - signal boxes demolished and tell-tale signs removed. This was particularly true of the temporary station at Oldham Mumps - a vast swathe of concrete occupying the site of the former platforms. It's temporary because eventually the tram will veer off before Werneth Tunnel, running through the streets of Oldham before regaining the rail corridor to Rochdale further north. The concrete pad for the turnouts onto the street are already laid - it's only a matter of times before the rails leave this bit of Oldham forever.

Retraced my steps to Victoria on the same tram, and made it in time for the 13:22. Once an Adelante, this Blackpool service is not a rather tired Northern Class 150 - but it was at least fairly lightly loaded. The run out to Preston was sleepy, and I noted the rain closing in as we headed into Lancashire. I ended up making a dash through the heavy, slanting downpour to my hotel for the night - watching the bluff northern blokes strutting around in t-shirts, pretending it wasn't raining. Preston is an odd place, and it had been a pretty strange day.

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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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