Sunday, 19 February 2012

My first steam train: the Winter Cumbrian Mountain Express

Somehow, in spite of having loved trains for many years, I had never been on a steam train - until yesterday. On Saturday 18th February, six of us went to Carlisle and back on the "Winter Cumbrian Mountain Express", a steam train run by the Railway Touring Company, combining the glorious scenery of the Lake District with the sights, sounds and smells of steam engines. It was, undoubtedly, the best train journey I've ever done.

Of course, you can't just buy a ticket and jump on a steam train anywhere these days. There are basically two kinds of steam train available these days: the first is to go along to one of the many "preserved railways" in the country - mostly old branch lines, long closed to normal traffic, but kept running by volunteers and enthusiasts to run trains on for fun.

I've been to one in Northern Ireland - the Downpatrick and County Down Railway - and I've been on the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales, but neither are standard gauge; all railways in Ireland have the rails 5ft 3in (1600mm) apart, while the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways are narrow-gauge railways with the rails 1ft 11½in (597mm) apart. There aren't, however, any heritage railways which are particularly near to Coventry, and thus I haven't yet been on any such lines in England.

While travelling on heritage branch lines has its charm, it's a far cry from the days of steam trains on the main line. Various companies try and recreate those days by running special charter services, usually known as railtours, over the main lines, often hauled by steam engines (though there are also railtours hauled by diesel engines). And thus it was that six of us embarked upon the Winter Cumbrian Mountain Express, from London to Carlisle and back.

There are two important rail arteries running through Cumbria: one is the West Coast Main Line, which is roughly parallel to the M6 over the summit of Shap, and the other is the Settle and Carlisle Line, with its famous Ribblehead viaduct at Blea Moor, and the summit at Ais Gill. Both offer spectacular mountain scenery, and our train undertook a circular tour of them both, heading north over Shap to Carlisle, before returning south via Ais Gill and Settle.

On a journey of 300 miles from London to Carlisle, it would take too long to do the entire trip there and back by steam today; for a variety of reasons steam locomotives are now restricted to just 60mph on the main line. So for the journey between London and Preston we were hauled by an electric locomotive, with steam taking us on our round-trip through Cumbria.

Our train in this case was a rake of 12 Mark 1 coaches, dating from the 1950s but carefully maintained and lovingly restored, which had great visibility and lovely springy seats. On this kind of journey, the visibility is vital: the scenery through Cumbria is magnificent, and having only ever sped over Shap in a Pendolino with tiny windows I was looking forward to being able to see the Lake District in the way you can from the M6. There were three classes onboard: Premier, First and Standard; we were in coach H, the third of four standard class coaches.

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For Matt, James, James and Ben, the day began by getting to London Euston for the 07:09 departure time of our railtour; Ian joined the party at Milton Keynes at 07:58, and finally I joined at Rugby at 08:28. Our electric locomotive, number 86259, was painted in so-called "electric blue" livery, the original colour they were painted when introduced to the newly-electrified WCML in the 1960s. While nowadays Class 86 locomotives are confined to freight trains and occasional railtours, in their heyday they hauled crack express services all the way from London to Glasgow.

In spite of being nearly 50 years old, the Class 86 locomotive easily hauled us at its top speed of 100mph. In order to be able to use this speed, we were routed mostly on the fast lines of the WCML, sharing tracks with Pendolinos. Of course, given that the Pendolinos have a top speed of 125mph, we had to be carefully threaded between them; the train had an eleven-minute stand at Milton Keynes to let three Pendolinos speed through, with a fourth overtaking us while we stopped at Rugby.

Unfortunately our timings were a little optimistic - I believe the train had been timed for 10 coaches rather than 12, and so being a bit heavier meant we were a little more sluggish - and so all four of those Pendolinos were delayed by a few minutes. Fortunately, in spite of our being five minutes late leaving Rugby and Nuneaton, we caught the time up by Colwich Junction, and the next Pendolino (which took a different route at Colwich Junction) was not delayed.

We enjoyed a clear, fast run as far as Stafford, where we were checked to about 30mph through the station (possibly due to a slightly delayed train in front) and then gradually accelerated again. Unlike modern locomotives, the class 86s are fairly slow to accelerate and decelerate, which made for an interesting race through Stafford: on approaching the station we'd passed a stationary container train hauled by 90045, a much more modern electric locomotive from the 1980s, and it overtook us on the slow lines just north of the station; but our higher top speed (100mph vs. 75mph maximum for freight trains) meant he never completely passed us again and we slowly overhauled him for a clear run to Crewe.

We crossed over to the slow lines at Basford Hall Junction, just south of Crewe, to clear the way for another Pendolino to go through to Liverpool, and stopped in platform 6 to pick up passengers; we arrived three minutes early, and so stood for seven minutes to await our 09:46 departure time. On departure from Crewe we ran non-stop to Preston; it's fairly uncommon to run non-stop through Warrington and Wigan, but non-stopping meant we could keep up sufficient speed to stay in front of the next London-Glasgow Pendolino which was due through Crewe 13 minutes behind us.

Between Crewe and Preston the predicted bad weather crossed our path: a cold front was moving southbound over the UK, but fortunately it brought only a narrow band of rain and moved fairly quickly, so that the rain, which started while we were approaching Crewe, had turned to sunshine by the time we got to Preston.

After a brief stop at Preston, we left at 10:30 for the final leg behind our electric locomotive, to Carnforth, just north of Lancaster. At Lancaster, we passed a local train from Morecambe to Leeds, waiting for us to pass so it could come into the station and reverse, in spite of the fact that it was due to arrive before we were due to pass. Here we see our main problem of the day: not being a regular passenger service, nor a freight train, we were at the whim of the signallers as to when we got to go. Some treated us like we were radioactive - "get it out of here, now!" - while some held us back to ensure regular service trains got priority.

A few minutes north of Lancaster, we pulled into no. 2 goods loop at Carnforth at 10:57, where our electric locomotive was detached. As a special celebration of the late George Hinchcliffe, the man responsible for saving Flying Scotsman from the scrapheap in San Francisco, not one but two steam locomotives were now attached: 'Black Fives' numbers 44932 (leading) and 45305, both classic LMS steam engines dating from the late 1930s, painted all in black.

"Double-heading" is very rare in passenger service, especially with steam trains; the primary purpose is to be able to go faster without having more powerful locomotives. While very heavy freight trains are still sometimes hauled by two locomotives, using two diesel or electric locomotives is fairly easy because they can usually be connected together so that one driver can control both from one set of controls.

With steam double-heading, however, this is impossible, and so there were two drivers controlling the two locomotives, who were faced with the exceedingly difficult task of keeping their acceleration roughly the same so that one locomotive didn't end up exerting more power than the other and damaging one or both. This requires careful coordination, which was done with the very simple but effective system of the drivers sticking their heads out and shouting between the two locomotives!

Upon leaving Carnforth at 11:33 (11 minutes late) behind our two steam engines, the need for having two locomotives became immediately obvious: the ascent up to the summit at Shap is one of the steepest and twistiest bits of the WCML. With our locomotives going at full steam we managed a respectable speed as far as Tebay; up to then the maximum gradient was two miles at 1 in 106. After Tebay, however, comes a solid five-mile climb at 1 in 75, and while we were probably doing 50mph through Tebay, by the time we hit Shap summit we were probably doing little more than 30mph.

Until you've experienced a ride behind a steam engine, little prepares you for the sensory experience of steam engines at maximum power: the sight, sound and smell of the steam and smoke make climbing a hill like Shap into an event. I'd previously been over Shap four times, but only one of those was northbound, where the uphill gradient is 1 in 75 (compared with just 1 in 125 uphill going southbound), and that was in a Pendolino which has considerably more power; the Pendo made mincemeat of the hill, but even with two Black Fives it was a genuine struggle.

Moreover, Mark 1 coaches have much better visibility than a Pendolino, and our lack of speed actually enhanced the views; rather than flashing by at 90mph, we were able to see all the wonderful scenery of the Lake District, with bright sunshine all the way from Kendal to Penrith. It still doesn't quite beat the view from the parallel M6 (thanks to the lack of forward visibility) but this came much closer than any Pendolino ever could.

Having crested the summit at about 12:15, about ten minutes late, it was downhill all the way to Carlisle, and our two Black Fives ate up the miles fairly well. While officially restricted to 60mph, it felt like we were going just a little faster in an attempt to make up time; the locos were certainly capable of a little more speed.

After a squally shower darkened the skies between Penrith and Carlisle, it brightened up for our arrival into Carlisle at 12:49, just nine minutes late. The journey from Euston had taken over five and a half hours (with a half-hour stop at Carnforth); three minutes behind us, the 09:30 Pendolino from Euston to Glasgow pulled into the opposite platform having taken not much over three hours (though we had delayed it by a few minutes).

At Carlisle, we got the first sight of our two steam locomotives, still shrouding themselves in steam even now they were stopped in the platform. Practically everyone ran to the front of the train to get shots of the locomotives; I had to fight my way through but got some nice photos in the end. After a few minutes, the two locos and the support coach were detached to be turned round: unlike modern diesel and electric locomotives, steam engines have a definite "front" and "back", so they used a triangle of tracks at the south end of Carlisle station to turn the locomotives, before refilling the water tanks.

With nearly two hours' break in Carlisle, we headed into the city centre to get some food; James and I headed to KFC, while the other four headed to McDonalds, reconvening after we'd eaten to look briefly around the city. After an hour or so we headed back to the station, in time to see them bringing the locomotives back in to reattach them to the other end of the train. From now on, we were heading south.

At 14:39, a couple of minutes late, we left Carlisle, immediately diverging from our inbound route to take us up the Settle and Carlisle. The S&C was the third major north-south route to Scotland; it was deliberately built as a mainline railway, with the maximum gradient limited to 1 in 100 throughout. From Carlisle to Appleby, the line climbs the Eden Valley at a fairly gentle pace, and we reached Appleby in just under 50 minutes, where we stopped for about 15 minutes for more water. By this time, the weather had closed in slightly, and we were treated - briefly - to snow on the Settle and Carlisle!

On departure from Appleby at 15:41, we began the climb up "the long drag": in order to keep to the maximum gradient of 1 in 100, the builders of the line from Settle Junction to Appleby ended up creating a continuous 15-mile uphill gradient of 1 in 100 in both directions, with about ten miles approximately flat between Blea Moor and Ais Gill, at 1156ft (352m) and 1169ft (356m) above sea level respectively. Unlike modern coal trains, which even with a good run-up are doing 23mph by the time they get to the top, our Black Fives performed admirably and we made very good time up the long drag, running three minutes faster than timetabled to Ais Gill.

At Blea Moor, we passed over the infamous Ribblehead viaduct, where we were able to see the front of the train snaking over the horseshoe-shaped viaduct out of our left-hand window, with clouds of steam puffing from our two locomotives. From here on in, it was downhill for 15 miles at 1 in 100, and we made good time as far as Hellifield, where we got stopped briefly at a signal before pulling into the goods loop for our final water stop.

At 17:06, we left Hellifield in bright evening sunshine and said goodbye to the Settle and Carlisle; we headed south over the Ribble Valley line to Blackburn. From Hellifield to Clitheroe, there are few passenger services (just two in each direction on summer Sundays, designed for ramblers); the line remains for use by freight and diverted passenger trains, and counts as "rare track" which, in my quest to travel on every British railway line, is all-important - it's no good saying "I've been on every line except X, Y and Z..."

With the sun setting, we made it to Daisyfield Junction outside Blackburn a full seven minutes early; with the line between Hellifield and Clitheroe being hardly used, our timings were deliberately a bit slack. Here, Preston signal box held us for ten minutes, so that not one but two passenger services to pass over Daisyfield Junction in front of us; we were timetabled between the two but the signaller clearly thought better of it. Having thus been seven minutes early, we arrived in Blackburn six minutes late, where we dropped passengers who had boarded at Preston, because we weren't going back via Preston.

No, we were being much more cunning than that: there is a little used curve between the WCML and the Preston-Blackburn line - from Lostock Hall Junction to Farington Junction - which permitted us to go through onto the WCML without reversing. And with this curve being wired, we were timetabled to stop on the curve to change locomotives.

The curve itself is little used by freight and very rarely used indeed by passenger services; loco changes on the curve are even rarer, with the last recorded loco change happening there in 2003. However, while we'd been allowed half an hour at Carnforth, here we had just 15 minutes to change locomotives. And now that we were a few minutes late, it was going to be difficult to keep to our path back up the WCML to London.

We stopped on the curve at Farington Junction at 18:21, three minutes later than booked; we bade a fond farewell to our two steam locomotives, which passed us before heading back to the steam works at Carnforth. Our electric locomotive was then reunited with us; but even though everything appeared to go smoothly, we were stopped for 22 minutes, and left at 18:44, 11 minutes late.

Now we were once again at the mercy of the signallers controlling the WCML. We expected that the next Pendolino from Liverpool, which was booked to join the main line at Weaver Junction twelve minutes behind us, would be given priority at Weaver Junction. But we got closer and closer to Weaver Junction and we didn't slow down; even once we'd gone through the junction we were uncertain if we were behind it or in front of it.

But as we were approaching Crewe, a peek out the window confirmed that the Pendo was behind us. Right behind us. So close we could see the headlights. We were then sent into platform 11, which meant crawling across lots of pointwork to get over to the far side of the station; before we were even stationary in the platform, the Pendo ran through, by now a full nine minutes late. After setting down passengers at Crewe, we left at 19:31, still 11 minutes late, but we were now running on the slow lines; as such we were held to a maximum speed of 75mph.

We remained on the slow lines through Stafford, where we had been booked to cross to the fast lines; we crossed instead at Whitehouse Junction, but not before slowing right down to a 5mph crawl to let two Pendolinos cross in front of us. At Colwich Junction, where the brief section of double track widens once more to four, we were routed once again onto the slow lines, in spite of the trains that we had been booked to pass while on the slow lines already having gone through; this meant we were still limited to 75mph and any hope of making up time on the run to Nuneaton was dashed.

We spent much of the run to Rugby trying to figure out what order the trains would end up in on the way into Euston: it being late on a Saturday night, the line south of Rugby would be limited to two of the four tracks, with the other two closed for maintenance; thus, the order we left Rugby in was crucial. We used live departure boards and working timetables to try and figure out what would happen.

While we were doing this, one of our fellow passengers came up to us and thanked us; the most enjoyable part of his day had, he said, been seeing us up and about, peeking out windows, trying to figure out what was going on; it reminded him of himself, many years ago. I have to admit that, had we just sat around enjoying the scenery, it wouldn't have been half as interesting: but by keeping a log of our times, and then trying to figure out where all the other trains were - in effect, trying to second-guess the signallers - it made the journey all the more fun.

As it was, we steadily lost a little bit of time, and so we called at Nuneaton about 14 minutes late. We were unexpectedly crossed back to the fast lines just south of Nuneaton, but by Rugby we were 16 minutes late. At Rugby, I said goodbye to the others and disembarked at 20:47 to head back to Coventry; I then saw another Pendolino pass slowly through Rugby behind us, and clearly the train had been slotted in between two Pendolinos when it was meant to be in front of both of them.

That did mean, however, that with an eight-minute stand at Milton Keynes to let the Pendolino back in front, the railtour didn't need its booked 12-minute stop at Tring to let the two Pendolinos in question back through, and having been 16 minutes late into Milton Keynes, the rest of the party arrived back in London Euston just three minutes late, at 22:09, exactly 15 hours after they left.

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My first steam train didn't disappoint: to get not one but two steam locomotives was a rare treat, and because we had two locomotives we were able to experience the steep ascent of Shap. In most modern trains, you just don't appreciate the gradients unless they're really extreme; and where there are extreme gradients such as Shap, trains have evolved to cope with them. Thus, to turn the clock back sixty years and see what it was like to climb Shap and Ais Gill with steam locomotives - an everyday occurence right up till the mid-1960s - was eye-opening.

It was also my first railtour, and I think that was perhaps the aspect of the day I enjoyed most: this wasn't just another Pendolino speeding up and down the WCML between Coventry and London, this was a train going on a scenic excursion to probably the most beautiful lines in England, unconstrained by punctuality statistics and profit margins. Many of the onboard staff were volunteers, who give up their time to help run these tours, and get free trips on such wonderful lines as their just reward; my thanks to all the staff at the Railway Touring Company, and at the West Coast Railway Company (who supplied the locomotives and coaches), for making all this possible.

Doing it as a group of six worked especially well: just two or three people would have been an altogether quieter, more subdued affair, but with six of us we kept each other going, and the whole thing was a really satisfying day out. Once it got dark, and we got delayed, we were all trying to second-guess the signallers, which somehow made it even more fun. Most satisfying of all, our train managed to delay, by my count, 14 service trains (though each by no more than a few minutes).

I had long been sceptical of railtours in general - not least because of their relatively high cost - but at £69 a head, this Winter Cumbrian Mountain Express felt like a bargain. To have the romance and beauty of being hauled by two steam locomotives - real machines doing mechanical work, unlike all these modern electric and diesel trains where everything is just pushing buttons - on such beautiful lines was simply magical.

The only question now is, what's next?

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