Friday, 1 June 2012

North Country Rover, Day 1: Getting There

Although I've been on many, many trains over the last year, I haven't really had much time to blog about it. However, spending five days on trains "oop north" really deserves some blogging. To make it easier, I no longer have to carry around my laptop: I now have an iPad from which to blog about my and Ian's travels around the north this Jubilee weekend. We're spending five nights in York travelling around on a North Country Rover, which is valid for four days in eight travelling around the area bounded by Preston, Carlisle, Newcastle and Hull.

While I've been on pretty much every line in Scotland now, and nearly every line in the midlands and the north-west, Yorkshire and the north-east of England remain largely unexplored by me. Ian, however, is from Bolton, and while he has explored much of the area as a child, it's been quite a while since he's had a chance to spend a good few days "oop north".

We plan to spend Friday (1st June) going to Whitby and back, then Saturday (2nd) touring around a variety of lines in East and West Yorkshire. Then on the Monday (4th) we plan a grand circuit of the Cumbrian Coast and the Tyne Valley, and on Tuesday (5th) a short trip to Morecambe before heading home again via Leeds. On Sunday (3rd), rather than travelling on trains, we will be visiting Railfest 2012, a huge exhibition of trains old and new at the National Railway Museum.

The weekend started, unusually, on Thursday (31st May) evening, with Ian getting the train from Milton Keynes after work, and my joining him at Coventry:

1742 Coventry to Birmingham New St, arr 1808
Headcode: 1G33, operated by Virgin Trains using Pendolino 390003
Distance: 19 miles; walk-up return: £5.40

What a surprise: another train to Birmingham, another Pendolino; though only a 9-car train. Virgin Trains are currently in the process of lengthening over half their Pendolinos from 9 to 11 carriages long: 31 trains will get two new carriages added to them before December, while four extra 11-car Pendolinos have already been brought into service - unfortunately I have yet to travel on one...

We arrived at Birmingham New Street and headed to McDonalds around the corner from the station to grab some dinner, before heading back to New Street to head north towards York. In order to avoid CrossCountry's ubiquitous Voyager trains - which, at 4 or 5 carriages, are far too short for the long journeys they make - we picked one of a few trains a day which CrossCountry run with HSTs:

1903 Birmingham New St to Leeds, arr 2105
Headcode: 1E63, operated by CrossCountry using HST 43301+43384
Distance: 115.5 miles; walk-up return: £37.05

Spending two hours on an HST is such a nice way to travel over 100 miles: the seats are comfortable, the windows are large, and the trains are long enough to cope with almost any number of passengers you care to mention. Compared the noisy, cramped, claustrophobic, short, and wholly unsuitable Voyagers, the HST was a breath of fresh air (ironic given that it is in fact a return to what was used before Voyagers were built!).

Much of the route we travelled was familiar: from Birmingham we headed north-east over CrossCountry's nearest thing to a main line to Derby, and from there we followed the Midland Main Line to Sheffield. From Sheffield, however, I was in less familiar territory, skirting through South Yorkshire to join the Leeds branch of the ECML south of Wakefield, calling at Wakefield Westgate on our way into Leeds.

During the day, the CrossCountry trains via Leeds continue all the way to Edinburgh, but it being 9pm the one we were on terminated at Leeds. We had an unusually long wait at Leeds - nearly 40 minutes - for our onward train to York, during which time we did remarkably little. Eventually the time came to board our final train of the day:

2142 Leeds to York, arr 2206
Headcode: 1P62, operated by Transpennine Express using Desiro 185139
Distance: 25.5 miles; walk-up price: £7.75
Amazingly, in spite of having been on the vast majority of the long-distance network around the country, until Thursday I'd never been on the line between Leeds and York. The line is used by a variety of services: apart from local trains, there are CrossCountry services running between Plymouth and Edinburgh, but the bulk of the traffic is taken up by Transpennine Express (TPE) who run three trains an hour between Leeds and York, continuing to a variety of destinations such as Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Scarborough.

The line itself is electrified at both ends, but otherwise remains a diesel "island" for the time being. However, plans are in place to electrify the main "north trans-Pennine" corridor between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York by 2020. This would also provide a useful diversionary route for East Coast, whose electric trains can often get stuck due to a lack of alternative electrified routes.

At Colton Junction, where the Leeds-York line joins the ECML, there is a rare type of junction. With most points, there is a "straight on" route, with a fairly high speed limit, and a diverging route which curves more and thus usually has a lower speed limit. Colton Junction, however, is set up to permit trains heading south from York to head towards Doncaster or Leeds at 125mph on either line. (The only other such junction is at Rugby on the WCML.) Unfortunately, we were a) on a train that could only do 100mph and b) heading north where the feeling of "converging" is less noticeable than "diverging" going south.

On arriving at York, we walked the short distance to our Ibis hotel, and settled down for a quiet night, before our day trip to Whitby on the Friday which involved a bus, a steam train, a line that shouldn't still exist, a rather enjoyable meeting with my cousin, and my first ever rail replacement bus service...

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