Posted in Railways on Saturday 5th May 2012 at 11:20pm

I'm playing catch-up with these entries after a very strange and directionless few weeks where I've managed to think about doing lots and actually achieve very little. In the middle of this period came the welcome opportunity to get away and travel - always something I value, as much for the chance to observe the world at large as anything else. But this trip had a purpose too, which was this curious tour to points south. Completely illogically of course, I started out yesterday by heading in the opposite direction - north to Crewe. Class 20s aren't my favourite traction by any means, but they're unusual enough to warrant a bit of a trip to get some mileage with them - especially as you have to wonder just how long they can carry on hauling trains like this on the mainline. A fitful night and an early start made for a rather bleary-eyed walk to the station where I met familiar faces including my travelling companion for the day. In fact, the tables we occupied became a pretty sociable little knot in the middle of a rather quiet carriage, which is always a good thing in my book.

Despite predictions of failure or non-availability the pair of 20s, one required and one not, turned up on time and shot away from Crewe in surprisingly rocket-like fashion. We sped south taking a route skirting the Midlands to join the route to Banbury and Oxford. I've used this route surprisingly often this year, having not needed to in recent times - and I'm always impressed by how quietly but surely, Chiltern Trains have delivered on their Project Evergreen promises - faster alignments, restrictions eliminated - little improvements that sum up to a better experience all round. At Aynho Junction we headed for Didcot, and the Foxhall curve onto the mainline. There had been two separate foul-ups on the Great Western this morning - one around Paddington and the other in South Wales - which meant some of the participants who were due on the train were behind schedule. Given some space due to gaps in service, we were unusually allowed to wait a while, and a rammed Gloucester-Swindon unit and a busy HST soon turned up with the missing folks. We headed off again, via Thingley Junction to the rarely used Melksham route and onto the Portsmouth line. Here, my usual ennui descended and I dozed and chatted as far as Southampton Maritime. I also realised I'd rather strangely chosen to replicate this route next week too!

Arrival in Hampshire meant we'd reached the focus of the tour - a little but significant crop of very unusual lines around the county, starting with a call at Eastleigh to let off passengers who wanted a short break. Out of the station northwards and onto the Romsey branch where we reversed at a signal, and headed back through the station non-stop with the trailing 37 in the lead now, and into Eastleigh Works. I'd been here before, but we used a different line - one that disappointingly had a fair amount of former Metropolitan Line stock stored on it - although to be honest they all did at present! This meant many people didn't get far past the gates, but the First Class end was well positioned and the usual tide of 'vestibule creamers' made their showing as we came to a halt. The original plan had been a traversal of the depot loop which hadn't been possible in the end. I was lucky enough to have done this too, so it wasn't a great loss - but it did mean we ended up with a fair number of very odd reversals here - which began to take their toll on people's sanity! So our next reversal took us back through the station with the aim of halting at Allbrook Junction. In the event, we ended up back on the Romsey branch. This is where things got a little hazy and the driver seemed to lose track. Returning to the station we were signalled onto the Down Through line, leaving a large group of bewildered patrons stranded on the platform. Coming to a shuddering halt short of Southampton Airport Parkway, we eventually headed back into the platform, collected our punters and continued towards Southampton. A very odd and slightly amusing interlude!

Underway again, rather than taking the severe curve towards Southampton Central we continued straight past Northam Traincare and onto the docks branch. This more direct route served an impressive terminus at one point, the rather grand buildings of which remained evident. Passing multi-storey storage areas for the motor industry, row after row of Minis and Landrovers were evident. Also in dock was the vast Queen Victoria, a huge and impressive sight beside the line. Pressing on and winding through the Eastern Docks, we finally came to the QEII landing stage. I'd been here before - on foot from Southampton after an edgy night in a B&B miles from town - or so it seemed. That time, I was meeting people arriving by boat to live here. Today, I was just passing through as we pressed on to the very end of the line. An excellent result, though we were urged not to get out because the fee for 'use of the station' was huge!

Queen Victoria, Southampton Eastern Docks
Queen Victoria, Southampton Eastern Docks

Reversing again after a very efficient change of ends, we headed back to Northam Traincare, using the Reception Line there to reverse once again and head through Southampton Central to reach the gates of Western Docks. This shorter branch led through a more industrial scene, curving away from the mainline and through piles of sand and building materials to double back towards the point we'd reached on the Eastern Dock branch. There had been a through connection at some point, but this had long since gone and we soon found our way to the end of the short branch, again reaching the furthest possible point. It had been a very successful day from a track bashing point of view - and being at the right end of the train for the branches was a very welcome change!

The return trip wasn't without incident either. Firstly we headed towards Guildford using the rather dull line via Petersfield. This was a sleepy bit of the journey with little happening, although it was interesting to watch how we made up and then lost time. We weren't seriously late though, and I was content to laze my way along the line. Getting lost in the tangle of lines around Ascot, we were due to pause at Ash Vale - ostensibly for a photo stop on an otherwise long day on the train. This stop was curtailed to keep us on time, and de-training via the front four coaches would have meant it was unlikely we'd manage even to get off in the time allowed! From here we took the route to Reading, using the connection which climbs from the Southern tracks to the Great Western mainline - something I don't recall doing before. Work on reviving the underpass which will allow trains to reach the other side of the revitalised station seemed to be progressing very well too - and I wondered if we'd have used that route if it had been available? Our first set-down was at Didcot, in lieu of Swindon on the outward run. Except we didn't stop. Taking the curve through the station at speed, once again a number of passengers looking rather stunned as the platforms zoomed by. Those poor Swindon punters who'd been inconvenienced by the early issues were once again the victims as we made a call at Oxford for them to alight and head back to Didcot.

 20312 and 20308 back at Crewe
20312 and 20308 back at Crewe

The run back to Crewe was quiet and pleasant in the summery evening, and was only marred by the activities of a couple of BLS people who I probably shouldn't name, working the train and stirring up feelings against a former colleague. If nothing else, this solidified my resolve that resigning from the News Team had been the right thing to do. Otherwise it had been a successful, sociable and interesting day. There are so few good tours operating this summer that these days are increasingly precious and important.

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Posted in Railways on Sunday 22nd April 2012 at 9:48pm

Today was both a bit of a desperate dash and an experiment. Back from the amazing weekend in St.Andrews, and having been out to the Minehead Rally with the youngsters yesterday, I felt the need to get out on the railway. As a perk for being a season ticket holder, First Great Western had provide a pair of codes to get free tickets anywhere on their network, and the obvious choice was a run up to London. I had misgivings - it was a Sunday and I didn't know quite how loadings were, and the tickets had to be standard class. I reasoned I could always upgrade via Weekend First if the issue arose. But at what felt like an absurdly late hour I found myself waiting for the train to Bristol - I'd figured out a couple of possible connections, but ended up going for the shorter wait. Mostly because I felt a strange almost guilty feeling for travelling up so late in the day. I also realised that it was the London Marathon today, and getting to London before that began to dissemble was probably wise for any onward travel.

The trip wasn't too bad - but I appreciated afresh why I booked First Class whenever I could for this trip. On arrival I decided to head directly to Liverpool Street with one object in mind - Record Store Day. Yes, it was yesterday - but given I was inhaling dust and gravel on a rally course, I hadn't been able to take part. However, I reasoned that there might be some things still in stock, and with a list in hand for others I made for Rough Trade East via back alleys and streets, cutting through the rear of the former Truman's Brewery and finding a plaza of arty types contemplating slogans and graffiti. I paused to watch someone taking a picture - of someone else taking a picture of a "neighbourhood watch" sign. Only here I figured and pressed on. Rough Trade was still insanely busy. I witnessed a man stack Beatles box sets up to his chin and then subsequently get told "one of each per customer". He got mildly agitated and had to be ticked off. I carefully selected the items I'd been asked to find, along with my own pet purchase - the deluxe edition of James Yorkston's 2002 album "Moving Up Country". My CD of this is long since lost, and I'd resisted re-purchasing mostly out of spite to myself for letting that happen. However, even in it's shrink wrap this was a clearly lovely item - and so worth the wait. I paid, realising I now had the always traumatic burden of carrying a bag of fragile vinyl around London all day.

I was glad to get out of the melee in Rough Trade and headed back to Liverpool Street for coffee and air-conditioning. With a few hours left to kill, I figured I'd hit the rail network - and particularly Thameslink which was this weekend running across London for the first time in a couple of years as far as I could remember. From Liverpool Street I took the Metropolitan Line as far as Farringdon. Stepping through onto the Thameslink platforms I was shocked at the space now revealed by stopping up the former Moorgate route junction. The brickwork had been cleaned and revealed a bright concourse. Information screens were discreet but usefully detailed, the platform's curious snaking profile obvious looking back through the bridge portal. I didn't get to look at the upper concourse as my train arrived - but I must return at some point. Despite my reservations about the closure of the short branch to Moorgate, I was pretty impressed. I headed south next on one of the services terminating short at Elephant and Castle. This meant passing non-stop through City Thameslink which doesn't open on Sundays, and through the new platforms at Blackfriars. The work here was substantially complete too - but hoardings and scaffolding remained. I realised this was technically new track as the through platforms had swapped sides since my last pass through the station. The terminal platforms, now west of the station were also near finished. The roof couldn't be seen properly, but we stopped substantially over the new bridge, between the two entrances. I recalled poking around under the bridge just a few weeks ago. I had no intention of lingering at Elephant, having explored the area enough a while back, and revisited on the bus recently too. So, back onto the next service north to St. Pancras Thameslink platform - another station I'd never really used due to the long period of works. This was different - a vast concrete cavern with grey and silver features. I picked my way out avoiding escalators and congratulated myself with further coffee.

I'd decided on the 17:03 back to Bristol in order to connect with a sensible train home given the patchy Sunday service, which seems to perk up a little in the evening for some reason after a very sparse patch in the afternoon. The train home was full of Marathon types. I felt guilty and useless amongst these dedicated people who'd made the run today. My own achievements stopped at getting the bag of records home safely. It was a strange day out, but a pleasant one in the circumstances.

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Posted in Railways on Monday 16th April 2012 at 11:04pm

It's been a fantastic weekend...

But it had to come to an end, and absurdly early this morning I found myself shuffling to St.Andrews Bus Station and fortuitously just making an earlier bus than planned. I'd been here before of course, visiting during last year's Homegame, and I'd not imagined then I'd be here less than a year later on another Fence related mission. Having travelled up on Friday following the customary break of journey in the Midlands, I'd spent the last couple of days at an absurdly expensive hotel and stalking the small town with it's idiosyncratic mix of rural Scottish isolation and cosmopolitan moneyed students from around the world. I'd taken a spin down to Anstruther to revisit a place I fell in love with last year, and I'm met up with some people who made me laugh a lot and feel part of something a little bigger than the solitary appreciation of music I often express. Eye o' the Dug had been bewildering, elating and rather fantastic.

But now I was joining a large band of commuters heading for Edinburgh. It was a pleasant morning to be travelling, but there was no escaping the look of Monday on their faces. The train was busy, but had few stops on its route. Soon we were passing over the always breathtaking Forth Bridge, and I marvelled at how these people could keep their noses buried in their Metros while we clattered over this rather beautiful structure and enjoyed views over the Firth of Forth. The bridge has taken on greater significance to me now it's the gateway to Fife and all that brings. At Waverley I joined the tide of people washing onto the concourse, but broke away and found a welcome breakfast. I had time here to write, get coffee and to somehow extract my wrist from the festival wristband - finally accomplished with the aid of a long, Cafe Nero spoon found in my usual haunt. I was trying to adjust to being back - and to somehow splice together my fairly pointless work existence with the sense of significance this weekend had provided. It wasn't going to be easy to do this again...

Having worked out the diagrams based on my journey up, reckoned on a struggle down to the suburban platforms due to the temporary steps and passageway, but a fairly quiet train when I got there. It worked out as I thought, and I found a seat in a mostly deserted carriage which only got a little busier. A double Voyager set is possible the best result on this route just now, and I settled in for my run back to the Midlands, which went remarkably smoothly. At Birmingham I had a little longer to wait - I'd left plenty of time to make a connection, and opted for a much later but usually pleasant train at 18:42. It made my day hugely longer than it needed to be, but it meant not travelling during the peak. I wandered into town, had coffee in a shop I usually only ended up in during Sunday morning trips home from a weekend away because it was much too busy on Saturdays, and lounged around trying to make sense of the weekend.

Finally, after a quiet journey to Bristol I changed onto the 20:55. On weekdays this is a unit rather than a HST, and it was moderately busy. Approaching home was strange. I realise how silly this must sounds - aren't all festivals essentially an escape from reality? Don't they all confer that sense of otherness which is hard to recover from? Well, probably yes. But transport that sense to a place like the East Neuk and add magical, fragile music which rarely gets heard elsewhere and it is somehow more significant. It was good to be home after a day I'd managed to keep fairly easily paced and relaxing. But now the hard bit began...

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Posted in Railways on Saturday 7th April 2012 at 10:04pm

It was good to get back out on regular trains today. Whilst the last couple of weekends have seen some very interesting track covered, and given me the chance to escape for awhile, there is something about watching the world go by and being out among folks which I miss sometimes on these trips. With a longer distance foray planned for next weekend in conjunction with a Fence event, today was booked as a bit of an interlude - and in a bit of a panic to get tickets too. The Easter weekend can be a strange time to travel - though, experience dictates that the Saturday is often very quiet in comparison to other days. But the only sign that today was any different was the late opening of a number of the concessions at Bristol. Having arrived on the early train as ever, getting food was impossible and coffee was a challenge. Given that the next train was going to be a three-hour journey this was a concern. Finally got coffee and settled into the set which would form the 07:00.

The run north was uneventful and pretty quiet, with by turns misty, cloudy and then strangely sunny bouts of weather on route. There were perhaps a few extra passengers on board this morning, but they bailed at Birmingham with few getting on, and we set off for Manchester in a little burst of sunshine which lasted most of the way there. I'd got no real goals today except picking up a copy of the 2012 Combined Volume from the Ian Allan shop. This has become a bit of a tradition, and despite not really being able to spare the cash just now it was one I felt I should adhere to. Central Manchester wasn't too busy at 10am, so I wandered up Oldham Street and into the 'Northern Quarter' which led me to Victoria. I'd read - and indeed half thought about trying for the diverted services in Lancashire today, but having got here and found a service to Wigan leaving in a short while I decided it was worth a punt. Grabbed a quick bite of lunch and booked a ticket, before heading onto the 11:07. There was much confusion, with the train not appearing on the screens until very late on - but finally we left with only a few on board the leading 156, and a 142 behind which probably got a few more punters by virtue of being right by the entrance to the platforms. The limited stop meant reaching Wallgate fairly quickly, and I made quick change over the street to North Western. Much refurbished since my last visit, the station looked a lot better at concourse level - despite having a weird arrangement where one needs to display a rail ticket to a small camera to access the toilets! At platform level, there's quite a bit of work going on - in part to extend the platforms for 11 car Pendolinos, which are effectively coming into service right now - although 390156 eluded me all day today!

Over to platform 6 for the Liverpool train, with quite a few uncertain looking shoppers lurking around it. Once off, we crossed over the entire WCML and made bouncily brisk progress past Bamfurlong to Golborne Junction and the original course of the Main Line. Stopped by a red right at the signal which sits on the broken but defiantly extant Lowton Station platform, and again on the Parkside West curve, we took the booked half hour or so to finally make Huyton - the first stop, and where I planned to change platforms. Surprised to find a rather pretty little station with a subway and substantial booking office here, as I crossed to the other platform with just a few minutes to spare.

The train back was less hampered by signal checks and made surprisingly quick progress which meant it was still sitting awaiting departure for Blackpool North by the time I'd crossed back to Wallgate and then passed by on route back to Victoria! This was a sleepy, busy bit of the day and I only really regained conciousness as we arrived in the suburbs of the city. Stumbled blearily over to the concourse and decided to catch a tram back to Piccadilly for the coffee I'd been craving all day. Spend a lazy hour or so writing, people-watching and drinking coffee before a little shopping and then heading over to the arriving stock which would form 1V65. Noted that the schedule had changed somewhat for this, calling at a higher numbered platform at New Street and reversing rather than using the Camp Hill line. Sad to see this, as it has been a reliable and often rather quiet train and I wondered if this change might affect its performance? In the event this train was also pretty quiet from Manchester and I had a lazy trip south after eating a bit too much for my improvised tea! Settled down around Birmingham and had the usual pleasant run back, with the customary switch to the HST home.

I hadn't planned on seeking out PSUL track today, and indeed it wasn't new to me - but it was interesting to do some lines unusual lines for a service train. It was also good to start a week or so off work with a bit of a spin out to familiar parts. I picked my way home a little sleepily, contemplating longer journeys ahead...

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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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