Sunday, 10 May 2020

On This Day: Brand New Track in South-East London, 5th May 2018

Every once in a while, a completely new piece of track opens for service. As far as railway enthusiasts are concerned, this is like Christmas: a chance to not merely colour in a line on our map, but to draw a whole new one in!

Every once in a while, a bit of track that hasn't seen a service in many years ends up with trains being diverted over it. As far as railway enthusiasts are concerned, this is like Christmas: a chance to colour in a line you never thought you'd get to colour in.

On the May Day bank holiday weekend of 2018 in south-east London, I got to both a completely new bit of track (the Southwark Reversible), and a piece of track that's been there since 1899 but that I never thought I'd do (the Lee Spur), on the same train.

Saturday 5th May 2018 was a very good day.

The long-awaited rebuilding of London Bridge had recently been completed, with a new grade-separated route through the station for Thameslink trains instead of the previous series of flat crossings. By May 2018, the new layout was commissioned for use, but the main timetable change to take advantage of the new layout was still two weeks away.

As part of the upgrade works, the signalling control was transferred to a brand-new control centre down in Three Bridges. Control of the London Bridge station area itself had been moved over through the course of the works, but transferring the other areas controlled from London Bridge was a more gradual process. Over this bank holiday weekend, the Lewisham area was being transferred, meaning a complete block of all lines through Lewisham and forcing almost all Southeastern services to divert to Victoria.

Cannon Street station was also closed for engineering works, although Charing Cross and London Bridge remained open. With the block at Lewisham, however, the only line left open into and out of London Bridge was the line via Greenwich, which would ordinarily serve trains to Dartford and beyond.

Now, on the old layout trains to and from Greenwich could easily run in and out of Charing Cross, but the new layout was optimised for these trains to serve Cannon Street instead. While it is physically possible to run between Charing Cross and Greenwich, on the new layout this means crossing over the Thameslink lines on the flat. This is impossible with the current timetable, because of how many Thameslink trains run.

But back in May 2018 the vast majority of Thameslink trains were still running on the diversion via Herne Hill — and so a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a last hurrah of Charing Cross–Greenwich services materialised, which would also provide the first passenger trains over the "Southwark Reversible", the new connection between the Thameslink lines and Greenwich. (Thameslink services over the new connections would start two weeks later, with the new timetable.) The Southwark Reversible connections can be seen in light blue in the map below.

Naturally I wasn't going to pass up such an opportunity, but it was even better than that: some of the trains out of Charing Cross were using another existing piece of track, the Lee Spur. The Lee Spur is used every day by freight trains and empty stock moves between Grove Park sidings and the line to Sidcup, but there is almost never a use for diverting passenger trains over it, as in almost every other situation there would be no need.

However, on this bank holiday weekend, it was ideal. The line to Sidcup could not be provided with direct trains to London on their normal route, as that would require going through Lewisham. But trains could use the Greenwich line to head out of London, and then use the various curves near Dartford to head back along the Sidcup line, and then use the Lee Spur to avoid the Lewisham area and head to Orpington.

This can be seen in the map below: the usual main line is between Charing Cross and Orpington is shown in orange, with those parts closed for engineering works shown in dark red. Long-distance trains were diverted to London Victoria on the route shown in green, while stopping trains ran along the very convoluted route shown in blue.

A diversion over the Lee Spur would only make sense with total block through Lewisham but almost nothing else closed: if the block extended further towards London, or further south to Hither Green, then there would have been no possibility of diversions and there would simply have been replacement buses. I can find no record of there having been scheduled passenger services diverted over the Lee Spur for many years prior, and I suspect it will be many years before it happens again.

So this really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for me at least, and I was very excited to do these diversions — so much so that I spotted them and put them in my calendar two months in advance!

1102 (actual 1108) Brighton to London Blackfriars, arr 1221 (actual 1235)
Headcode: 1W26, operated by Thameslink using Desiro City 700152
Distance: 50½ miles

My Saturday morning began at home in Brighton, where I was going very much against the flow in getting a train away from the seaside on a very sunny bank holiday weekend. Two trains from London arrived just before 11am, on adjacent platforms, both about 10 minutes late and both completely and utterly rammed to the rafters with families and all-comers heading to the beach. It took a full ten minutes to get what I estimate would be over a thousand people through the ticket barriers, and only then could boarding commence for the two trains to head back to London.

The train in front of mine was the 10:58 to Victoria, which eventually departed at 11:05, and it featured my favourite and most ridiculous calling pattern of the 2015-2018 timetable on the Brighton Main Line: after departing Brighton it called only at Burgess Hill, Horley, East Croydon, Clapham Junction and London Victoria. Notable by their absence are calls at Haywards Heath and Gatwick Airport: nowadays trains not calling at Gatwick Airport are limited to peak trains only, but for some reason it happened every hour in the old timetable. If anyone can tell me why, I'm all ears!

By the time the Victoria train departed first, we left six minutes late at 11:08, and we stayed about five or six minutes late until the outskirts of London, where we came to an unceremonious and unscheduled halt at Purley. The very Victoria train that had left Brighton in front of us was held up at East Croydon because someone had pulled the passenger alarm, and a queue of trains formed up behind it.

After ten minutes waiting at Purley, we moved on once the Victoria train resolved its difficulties, and we proceeded onwards, now about 15 minutes late. All Thameslink trains were still being routed away from London Bridge, so we had to crawl through the suburbs of south London at a snail's pace, via Crystal Palace, Tulse Hill, Herne Hill, and Elephant & Castle, as every Thameslink train had had to do for the previous three years. (I couldn't wait for Thameslink trains to be routed via London Bridge again!)

Eventually we arrived into Blackfriars, a station which now straddles the River Thames, platforms suspended over the river, with lifts and stairs at both ends down to the river banks below. Historically the station had been entirely north of the river, and indeed that is where the adjoining tube station still is; but the Thameslink Programme works had created a new entrance on the South Bank, making access to that area much easier.

I had allowed what seemed like a generous 28 minutes to walk from the new South Bank entrance at Blackfriars to Waterloo East. But we didn't make up any time after East Croydon, even being stopped for a minuter or two at Herne Hill to let a stopping train from Sevenoaks take precedence heading into Blackfriars, and as a result my 28-minute walk turned into a 13-minute dash.

Fortunately, I had a cunning plan to avoid having to wend my way through the back streets to get to Waterloo East. I headed for Southwark tube station, just 8 minutes walk from Blackfriars, where I met my friend Matt: using the fact that we had travelcards, we headed through one entrance of Southwark tube station, and came out the other end into Waterloo East. Here, there is the bizarre situation of two sets of ticket barriers just a few meters apart — one, for leaving Southwark tube station; the other, for entering Waterloo East station — with the remote possibility you could be stuck between them!

Fortunately that didn't happen, and between the shortcut through Southwark tube station, and the fact the train we were aiming for was running a few minutes late, meant we easily made it to Platform B at Waterloo East for our next train. The platforms here are numbered with letters A to D, to avoid any confusion with the adjacent mainline station at Waterloo.

1249 London Waterloo East to London Charing Cross, arr 1253
Headcode: 2B30, operated by Southeastern using Networker 465249*+465172
Distance: ¾ mile

It will likely seem bizarre to most people that we walked from Blackfriars to Waterloo East to get a train from there to Charing Cross, when the District Line from Blackfriars to Embankment would have done the same job much more easily. But, of course, there was track to be had!

For reasons I will explain below, the limited service running into and out of Charing Cross all had to use platforms A and B at Waterloo. To get between those two platforms and platform 4 at Charing Cross, some very rarely-used crossovers between the two stations had to be used, and I hadn't done those crossovers — and indeed they are rarely used for scheduled services, though they are definitely not the rarest bit of track from this day.

Nonetheless it was definitely worth the detour to tick them off, and we made sure the platform starter at Waterloo East had the diagonal white lights above it illuminated to indicate the train was taking the crossover before boarding it for the very short journey over the Hungerford Bridge, over the desired crossover at what is apparently known as Belvedere Road Junction, and into Charing Cross, arriving into platform 4 as scheduled.

At this point Matt and I went and got some lunch and had a bit of a catch-up (even though we'd seen each other only a couple of days previously!), and then headed back to Charing Cross for the main event.

1433 London Charing Cross to Petts Wood, arr 1554
Headcode: 2O40, operated by Southeastern using Networker 465187*+465042
Distance: 32¼ miles

This train from Charing Cross to Orpington ranks as probably the most convoluted route between those two stations that has ever been devised as a timetabled through service.

First of all, we left from platform 4 and crossed over on the other crossover at Belvedere Road Junction to gain platform A at Waterloo East, the reverse manoeuvre of what we'd done to get into Charing Cross earlier. This was necessary because only from platforms A and B could we do what we needed to do next.

Instead of staying on the Charing Cross lines, we carried straight on at Ewer Street Junction, against the normal flow of traffic here: normally we would have crossed from the Down Charing Cross Slow to the Down Charing Cross Fast line, but instead we effectively crossed from the Down Charing Cross Slow to the Down Snow Hill. This put us on the lines reserved for Thameslink trains, and meant we then called in platform 4 at London Bridge: a first for Southeastern services, and one not repeated since this weekend two years ago!

We then used Line 4 out of London Bridge, designated for Thameslink trains towards East Croydon but peeling off at the last minute before the new flyover (at Corbetts Lane Junction). This put us parallel to the new Southwark Reversible, although technically that name only applies to the other track; nonetheless this was my first time over this rearranged piece of track since the remodelling had been completed.

This route led us to cross over at Surrey Canal Junction (from Line 4 to Line 2) and at North Kent East Junction to gain the line to Greenwich — easily done with no other trains around, but much more difficult to timetable in among all the trains to and from Cannon Street. Nonetheless, this manoeuvre is now repeated every half-hour by Thameslink trains to Rainham!

Having gained the line to Greenwich, we sat back and relaxed for nearly an hour as no fewer than 19 station calls were timetabled before the final piece of rare track. The first twelve, through Greenwich, Woolwich, and Abbey Wood (where we saw the almost-but-not-quite completed Crossrail station next to us) took us out of London towards Dartford.

But after the final station before Dartford, Slade Green, we turned right onto the Crayford Spur, to head back west again, through Crayford and Sidcup. At these seven stations, there was some confusion, as the only trains to London were leaving from the opposite platform from usual — we were heading away from London on the platforms normally used by trains into London! Fortunately most passengers seemed to understand eventually.

A full hour after leaving London Bridge, we finally arrived at Lee. As I've just explained, trains on this line would continue straight on to Hither Green and into London, but instead we proceeded from Lee to turn left onto the Lee Spur, avoiding Hither Green and instead allowing us to join the main line heading south to Grove Park and onwards to Orpington. Even at the very slow speed limit of 15mph, the very sharp curve (the curve radius being only 250m or so) caused some wonderful flange squeal as we turned from heading west to south-east.

And then, after just a couple of minutes, we joined the Down Slow line and, once the back end of the train had wended its way across the pointwork, sped up again to carry on to Grove Park and onwards to its destination at Orpington.

Obviously, we wanted to head back and do it all over again in the other direction, and we could just have carried on to Orpington and waited for the train to head back. But there wasn't any more interesting track left to do on this train, so we decided to stop one station short at Petts Wood, where we could simply cross the platform and head back into London after a short wait, saving us half an hour.

1601 Petts Wood to London Waterloo East, arr 1723 (actual 1739)
Headcode: 2I48, operated by Southeastern using Networker 465170+465036*
Distance: 31½ miles

We headed back from Petts Wood as far as Grove Park. After departing Grove Park, we were held at the signal protecting the Lee Spur: although the Spur itself is double track, the junction at the Grove Park end is only a single-lead junction, so we had to wait for a couple of minutes for another Orpington-bound train to come round the Lee Spur before we could continue.

And then we traversed the Lee Spur again, this time on the other track, and carried on to Lee. And that was it: a manoeuvre not likely to be repeated for many years, if ever, I was very satisfied to have done it, and that I could colour it in on my map.

We relaxed for another hour or so as we retraced our steps, heading back out through Sidcup to Crayford, taking the Crayford Spur, calling at Slade Green, and carrying on back into London, until we got to Greenwich. Unfortunately, at Greenwich, there was a problem with the monitors used by the driver to see the CCTV pictures needed for them to safely close the doors: as a result, we had to wait nearly ten minutes for members of station staff to come and assist the driver in dispatching the train safely.

That put us nearly 15 minutes late, but no matter: we still had one last piece of brand-new track to do. To get from Greenwich to Charing Cross, we crossed over at North Kent East Junction to Line 3, and then at Surrey Canal Junction we finally gained the brand-new Southwark Reversible line.

This took us away from the lines to Cannon Street and under the new Bermondsey Diveunder, allowing us to get to Line 5 into London Bridge (otherwise known as the Up Snow Hill) without having to cross Line 4 on the flat. This is now used every day by Thameslink trains from Rainham: while there are conflicts with Cannon Street services, the diveunder avoids any conflicts with other Thameslink services, which is a major improvement.

After calling in platform 5 at London Bridge — never used before or since by Southeastern services! — we carried on to Ewer Street Junction, where again we went straight on, but effectively crossed from the Up Snow Hill line to the Up Charing Cross Slow line. With our use of rare track complete for the day, we arrived back into platform B at Waterloo East and disembarked to head home.

Again, I should have had a nice 29-minute walk to Blackfriars, but we were 16 minutes late arriving into Waterloo East due to the problems at Greenwich, so I had to briskly retrace my steps back to Blackfriars in order to make my train home.

1752 London Blackfriars to Brighton, arr 1910
Headcode: 1W49, operated by Thameslink using Desiro City 700111
Distance: 50½ miles

Fortunately, I made my train home, and I sat back and relaxed as we wended our way back through Herne Hill, Tulse Hill and Crystal Palace for one of the last times I'd use this diversionary route, with all trains (in theory) being routed through London Bridge from the timetable change two weeks later.

I arrived back into Brighton in time for dinner after one of the most enjoyable and memorable days of track-bashing I've done in years: it's not every day you get to do both a completely new bit of track, and a bit of track you never thought you'd get to do, all on the same train!

Sunday, 26 April 2020

On This Day: Three Unusual Lines in Yorkshire, 27th April 2013

When faced with the task of trying to tick off a piece of track which is seldom-used by passenger trains, one usually has two options. The first option is to get one of a small number of trains booked over the line, usually at ungodly hours of the night, and hope that the train uses the bit of track it's supposed to. (Often it doesn't, for various reasons, which can be immensely frustrating.)

The other option is simply to wait for the "right kind" of engineering works — that is, some engineering works closing the "normal route" for trains, thus forcing them to be diverted over a different route. This latter option requires patience, since it may be some time before you get the right kind of engineering works. However, once they do come along you have much greater certainty that the train will use the diversionary route, and what's more these opportunities usually come at weekends — so instead of going out late on a weeknight to do some tiny bit of track in the dark and not be able to see out the window, one can enjoy the view and have an enjoyable Saturday or Sunday day trip.

Saturday 27th April 2013 was one of those lovely weekend days with the right kind of engineering works in the Sheffield area. A ¾-mile section of the line between Sheffield and Rotherham Central was closed, necessitating a five-mile diversion via Tinsley, along track which normally gets just one train each weekday at 22:00 — it was well worth the trip to Yorkshire to get to do this on a weekend in daylight.

I took the opportunity to do a couple of other bits of rarely-used track too, whose trains fell into the first category above (not the second) — so I met up with a friend, Paul, who had come all the way from Reading to get the track as well!

0902 (actual 0915) Coventry to Birmingham New St, arr 0927 (actual 0936)
Headcode: 1G07, operated by Virgin Trains using Pendolino 390125
Distance: 19 miles

I started as usual with a late-running Virgin Pendolino from Coventry to Birmingham New Street. Usually when a fast train is late it would get caught behind a stopping train, but in this case the stopping train had been held at Rugby to follow us, so we made reasonably good time into New Street. New Street was in the middle of being rebuilt at this stage, so I deliberately allowed a little extra time to make the change for my next train.

1003 Birmingham New St to Sheffield, arr 1117
Headcode: 1S39, operated by CrossCountry using Voyager 221141
Distance: 77¼ miles

I changed for a CrossCountry Voyager northwards from Birmingham to Sheffield, a journey I'd done many times. Unfortunately, while we were on time as far as Chesterfield, there was some congestion in the Sheffield area — perhaps caused by the very diversions I was heading for! — and we arrived in Sheffield 5½ minutes late. Since I only had seven minutes to make my connection, now reduced to 90 seconds, I ran over the footbridge from platform 2 to platform 1A to make my train:

1124 Sheffield to Doncaster, arr 1204
Headcode: 2R67, operated by Northern Rail using Pacer 144009
Distance: 19 miles

Fortunately, I just about made it! Frustratingly, though, the train was held further down the platform waiting for my previous train to depart, with some people who weren't quite so quick at getting over the footbridge lamenting the fact that the train hadn't been held with the doors open for another minute (since it wouldn't have caused any additional delay).

But after a couple of minutes we were off, and almost immediately after leaving Sheffield station we veered right at Nunnery Main Line Junction and onto our diversionary route to Rotherham.

The railways in the former West Riding are a maze of former lines built by different companies and joined together in a very haphazard way. This ended up with two largely parallel routes heading north-east out of Sheffield: one was built by the Midland Railway, running through Meadowhall but skirting the edge of Rotherham (with a station on the outskirts at Masborough); the other, built by the South Yorkshire Railway and eventually absorbed into the Great Central Railway, ran slightly to the east, past a huge marshalling yard at Tinsley and onwards through the centre of Rotherham.

Map based on OpenStreetMap; © OpenStreetMap contributors
Both routes were retained until the 1990s, when British Rail finally started to rationalise the network. This was in part precipitated by the arrival of the Sheffield Supertram, which required the route through Tinsley to be reduced to single-track so that the tram lines could be accommodated in parallel. To enable trains to serve both Meadowhall and Rotherham Central, a ¾-mile chord was built... which was precisely the bit of track that was closed on this day!

The route via Tinsley fell largely into disuse when the chord was built, with a single track retained so trains could still divert if needs be, and for freight trains to access what's left of Tinsley Yard. It was this route we were using to get to Rotherham and onwards to Doncaster; because there's a three-mile-long single-track section, only about four trains an hour could be accommodated over the line. Some trains, such as ours, ran via Tinsley to maintain the stop at Rotherham Central; others ran via the Midland route to maintain the stop at Meadowhall instead.

Our Pacer made reasonable time along the slow and somewhat bumpy diversion — tracks on diversionary routes tend not to be very well-maintained! — and after Rotherham Central the train continued to Doncaster. Here again there are two routes, one common and one rare — but sadly the rare route (via Thrybergh Junction and the "Roundwood Chord") here was not in use and I had to wait another few years to get that bit of track in!

On arrival at Doncaster, I met up with Paul, who'd come from Reading via London and York ("I couldn't resist some Grand Central HST mileage", he said, not unreasonably!), and we headed back the way we came.

1226 Doncaster to Sheffield, arr 1312
Headcode: 2R68, operated by Northern Rail using Pacer 142091
Distance: 19 miles

I retraced my steps, being able to talk Paul through the route — though we got more of a view of Tinsley Yard than perhaps we'd expected, being held at Tinsley East Junction for about ten minutes waiting for a train to come off the single line, but we only arrived into Sheffield five minutes late, and grabbed some lunch before heading for another train.

1338 Sheffield to York, arr 1455
Headcode: 2Y82, operated by Northern Rail using Sprinter 158855
Distance: 46¾ miles

Another train, another unusual piece of track — but this was different. Firstly, this wasn't a diversion, this was a regular service that only runs twice a day — fortunately it gets a Saturday service, and during daylight hours at that! More importantly, it's not just a piece of track that's rarely-used, but a station too — Pontefract Baghill is one of three stations in Pontefract: while Monkhill and Tanshelf get regular services to Leeds and Wakefield, Baghill gets just these two trains a day between Sheffield and York. (Oh, and lastly, the train was a nice Class 158 Sprinter, not a Pacer!)

We headed out of Sheffield to the north, on the other route via Meadowhall this time — although the train would normally call at Meadowhall and Rotherham Central, one of the stops had to be sacrificed and in this case the Rotherham Central stop was dropped. We took the normal route to Leeds as far as Moorthorpe, where we carried straight on instead of turning left for 17 miles of unusual track.

The first nine miles, between Moorthorpe and Ferrybridge, get no other regular passenger services, although very occasionally CrossCountry trains between Sheffield and York will divert via this route (this would normally require two separate engineering blocks to block both of the normal routes via Doncaster and via Leeds). Pontefract Baghill station is a fairly basic affair, with minimal facilites for the handful of people who use it every day (just 7,376 people used it in 2018/19).

After Ferrybridge, we carried on north on eight miles of track I'd done earlier that year (and wrote about at the time) past Ferrybridge Power Station and onwards to Milford Junction, where we crossed over to the little-used route between Castleford and Church Fenton. With the myriad of connections and chords on these lines, it can be quite hard to keep track (no pun intended) of what track you've been on!

We called at Sherburn-in-Elmet before we finally rejoined a "main line" at Church Fenton, pausing again at the very little-used station at Ulleskelf, before finally joining the East Coast Main Line at Colton Junction for the final stretch into York. Although we had left Sheffield some five minutes late, we arrived at York a full six minutes early, since we'd been booked to wait for an ECML train at Colton Junction, but were let out in front of it instead!

1511 York to Leeds (via Harrogate), arr 1622
Headcode: 2C41, operated by Northern Rail using Sprinter 150207
Distance: 38¾ miles

After only a few minutes in York, we got on another train on a route that I'd done before but that Paul hadn't, the long way round from York to Leeds via Harrogate. This was a busy stopping service on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and we did well to get a seat; unfortunately the Class 150s don't really lend themselves to seeing out the window easily, but we could still admire the view from the numerous viaducts while chatting.

On arrival at Leeds, Paul headed back to London, while I waited around for my next train. Using the slower route to Leeds had also enabled me to kill a bit of time, as I had one more unusual line to do, that was truly impossible to do other than on one of the two trains a day that serve it — and because they're timed for commuters working in Leeds, I had to wait for the evening peak to catch it (even though it was Saturday!).

1716 Leeds to Goole, arr 1830
Headcode: 2F25, operated by Northern Rail using Pacer 144021
Distance: 32½ miles

1849 Goole to Leeds, arr 2000
Headcode: 2F30, operated by Northern Rail using Pacer 144021
Distance: 32½ miles

The line between Knottingley and Goole gets just two trains a day in each direction; one in the morning peak, and one in the evening peak. Fortunately for me, the evening train then comes back from Goole to get back to the depot in Leeds — and it does so in service, so I could easily go to Goole and come back in order to colour in the track on my map.

The route from Leeds to Knottingley has an hourly service, and the Goole trains simply serve as an extension of one of those trains. Due to the track layout at Castleford, where no trains terminate but all trains are required to reverse in a single platform, it likely isn't possible to run a more frequent service — though Castleford has a disused second platform and reopening it might allow more trains to run. The original Lancashire & Yorkshire route between Leeds and Knottingley avoided Castleford, but the direct route shut in 1981, with trains diverted to serve the town.

Beyond Knottingley lie eight miles of double track, as far as Drax Branch Junction, and then another eight miles of single track to reach Goole. This is one of the few lines in the UK that sees more freight trains than passenger trains — or did, anyway, with numerous coal trains serving the power stations at Eggborough and Drax. However, Eggborough Power Station closed in 2018, and while Drax has the largest generating capacity of any power station in the UK (at 3.9GW), it is gradually being converted from coal to biomass and natural gas, meaning coal trains will soon be a thing of the past on this line.

The intermediate stations are, really, an inconvenience in the operation of this railway, then: the four intermediate stations at Whitley Bridge, Hensall, Snaith and Rawcliffe had just 2,550 passengers between them in 2018/19, or less than 10 passengers a day along the whole of the line. Even so, it is cheaper to retain the line and run one train a day than it is to embark upon the expensive public inquiry required to formally close the line, so this "parliamentary" service continues — albeit timed in as useful a way as possible that it might be used by commuters, unlike some other such services.

This bizarre train eventually pulled into Goole four minutes early, with almost no-one on it, before shunting to the other platform ready to head back to Leeds. (Sadly I had to disembark for the shunt move!)

There is a level crossing at one end of the station, which I distinctly remember using to cross the line to get to the other platform, even though there is also a pedestrian subway adjacent to it - there's something rather enjoyable about pausing briefly on a quiet level crossing with no traffic and no trains to admire the meeting of transport modes.

After only 20 minutes in the small town of Goole, I headed back on the very same train to Leeds, retracing my steps, where we arrived five minutes early, giving me plenty of time to make my connection back to Birmingham:

2011 (actual 2015) Leeds to Birmingham New St, arr 2205 (actual 2212)
Headcode: 1M80, operated by CrossCountry using Voyager 221128
Distance: 116 miles

The train was a few minutes late — hardly surprising given it had started from Edinburgh — and after a last-minute platform alteration from 12C to 16A (necessitating a dash over the footbridge) we were on our way. A couple of temporary speed restrictions through Wakefield meant we lost a little more time, and eventually arrived back into Birmingham seven minutes late.

I therefore missed the 2214 train to Coventry, but this gave me a change to look around New Street a little bit. As I mentioned, they were in the middle of rebuilding the station, with half of the new concourse being built while most of the old one remained open, and this happened to be the weekend they were switching over from the old station concourse to the new station concourse — with the change happening overnight on Saturday night.

When I passed through that morning, everything was still boarded up; but in the evening they'd started to take the hoardings down and, on the old main footbridge between platforms 3 and 4, you could see through to the new concourse — and my head exploded as I finally started to comprehend the enormity of the change the station was going through. I actually went back the following afternoon to take some photographs of the new concourse, after it had opened!

2234 Birmingham New St to Coventry, arr 2300
Headcode: 2C67, operated by London Midland using Desiro 350259
Distance: 19 miles

My final train home was a stopping train — the last fast train having left much earlier in the evening — and I arrived back in Coventry having spent over 10 hours and done 420 miles on trains; a long day, but worth it to ride on three unusual routes across the former West Riding of Yorkshire!

Saturday, 11 April 2020

On This Day: All The Stations, Northern Ireland (8-10 April 2019)

This time last year, I had the pleasure and privilege of joining Geoff Marshall and Vicki Pipe on their journey round Northern Ireland to visit All The Stations: Ireland: this is the behind-the-scenes story of how things unfolded!

As regular readers will know, I grew up in Bangor in Northern Ireland, but I've lived in England for most of the last 15 years. In 2017, I got involved in a small way with the original "All The Stations" endeavour, helping to plan Geoff and Vicki's epic trip round all 2,563 National Rail stations in Great Britain, and you can see me in a short cameo in this video at Shippea Hill.

After the original "All The Stations" was complete, attention naturally turned to the question of what was next. The island of Ireland was the most obvious natural extension; with just 198 stations it was also not nearly as large an undertaking. Surprisingly, despite growing up in NI, I'd been on relatively little of the railways in Ireland: I'd been on the whole network in Northern Ireland, but much of the network in the Republic of Ireland remains unknown to me.

Still, a one-eyed man is king in a world of blind men, and I thus got involved in helping Geoff plan All The Stations: Ireland. I wrote a very sketchy plan that, in theory, meant you could have done the whole island in five days, but that would have been very, very rushed — probably even more so than some of the English parts of All The Stations, where it really was a feeling of "if it's Tuesday, it must be Bradford".

When I travelled back to NI for Christmas in 2017, I did so by train and ferry through Holyhead and Dublin — Ryanair had pulled out of flying Gatwick-Belfast, and Easyjet's prices were thus insane, so this was a much cheaper option — which meant I could pick up lots of timetable leaflets when I passed through Dublin Connolly station.

Geoff and I had a first planning meeting in early 2018, with the intention of it happening later that year. Although we stretched the plan to about two weeks, it was still fundamentally following the same order as my five-day plan, starting in Rosslare and finishing in Derry/Londonderry, going round the lines out of Dublin in a roughly clockwise fashion, and using a bus between Ballina and Sligo to save a very long back-track.

However, in the end, due to other commitments, it didn't happen in 2018, but instead ended up pushed back to Easter 2019. In the meantime the plan was refined and extended a little, but I'm delighted that the plan ended up working almost without a hitch! It looked like Brexit could end up complicating matters, but an extension to the Article 50 negotiating deadline meant that didn't matter in the end.

Geoff and Vicki departed from London on the night of Thursday 21st March 2019, making their way to Rosslare the following day and then spending two weeks going round the Republic of Ireland. By the time they got back to Dublin on Sunday 7th April, they had just the line from Dublin to Belfast, and all of Northern Ireland, left to cover. Meanwhile, I flew to Belfast on Friday 5th April to stay with my parents for a few days, ready to meet up with Geoff and Vicki in Northern Ireland!

Monday 8th April (Day 15)

For Geoff and Vicki, Day 15 started in Dublin, as they made their way to Belfast. Although the Enterprise runs up to eight times a day between Dublin and Belfast, they of course needed to call at every intermediate station, so they only used the Enterprise between Drogheda and Newry.

My day started in Bangor, from which I caught the 14:57 train to Belfast, and then the 16:05 Enterprise from Belfast to Newry, to meet them there. We had over a two-hour wait for their first train in NI: Northern Ireland's two most awkward stations are Scarva and Poyntzpass, between Newry and Portadown. While Newry is served by the Enterprise service between Belfast and Dublin, the rest of the suburban services usually only go as far as Portadown, with just five trains a day extending to call at Poyntzpass and Scarva.

After nipping into the town centre to get a coffee, we boarded the 18:50 train all the way into Belfast. There being plenty of material for the one video already, I didn't appear on camera in the video, but I can assure you I'm sat on the train out of shot! The train was very quiet leaving Newry, and Geoff and Vicki naturally got talking to the guard; what I wasn't expecting was that the guard would make a special announcement welcoming them to NI! That was definitely the most surreal moment of the trip for me.

The trouble with there being so few trains calling at Poyntzpass and Scarva was that it really wasn't hard for the educated enthusiast to work out which train we were on... and even before we arrived into Great Victoria Street in Belfast, a couple of young fans had managed to track down the train and introduced themselves to Geoff and Vicki, with half a dozen more people waiting for their arrival into Great Victoria Street at 19:59, including a family with a young girl who'd made a lovely drawing for Geoff and Vicki!

Eventually, Geoff and Vicki managed to escape to their hotel, and I headed back to Bangor. Saying "See you in Bangor!" to folk who I'm used to seeing in London was... somewhat disorienting...!

Tuesday 9th April (Day 16)

The next morning (Tuesday 9th April) I met Geoff and Vicki at Bangor station just before midday. Unlike the previous day, where I had stayed entirely off-camera, today I was very much on-camera. I'd done videos with Geoff before, but this was somehow different: here I was the third person on camera, not the second. But more than that, it also felt like I was introducing Geoff and Vicki to the place I grew up, almost like I was showing them round.

We started with Geoff interviewing me in the cafĂ© in Bangor station — which even as I write that seems like a completely surreal concept — with a few questions about the Northern Irish railway network. He started by shaking my hand — only, I was expecting his signature left-handed handshake, and you can just spot on the video that I start to reach out my left hand before realising he isn't holding the camera (Vicki was)!

I'd brought along my copy of Johnson's Atlas and Gazetter of the Railways of Ireland, an absolutely wonderful historical atlas of Ireland's railways, as a prop to talk about how many railways in Ireland had closed in the 1950s and 1960s to leave the shriveled network we have today.

The atlas was a gift from my grandparents some twenty years ago, and I still treasure it. In fact, the first question Geoff asked was about how I'd got into railways in the first place: that was very much down to my grandpa, who was a civil engineer in the Roads Service in Northern Ireland but who passed on his love of all things transport to me. The question and my answer ended up on the cutting room floor, but it relaxed me into the rest of the interview.

After the interview, we split up, with Vicki going to look at the castle, and Geoff and I walking into the town briefly to get a drone shot of the marina (which also ended up on the cutting room floor). We reconvened to get the 12:27 train to Cultra, on which I described to camera what all we were going to do that day — and in so doing I managed to steal Vicki's thunder by doing what she normally did!

We stopped off at Cultra to head to the Ulster Transport Museum — co-located with the Folk Museum and thus generally advertised as the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum (which I must confess paints a very schizophrenic picture until you realise they're separate!) — where we spent an hour looking round. This was very much a trip down memory lane for me: a trip with my grandparents from Bangor to Cultra to visit the Transport Museum was probably one of my first, if not my first ever, train trip. Although I visited the museum several times as a child, including one or two school trips, it must have been at least 15 years since my last visit.

An hour after we arrived, we were back on the train heading to Belfast Central — or rather Belfast Lanyon Place, it having been renamed seven months previously. The name "Central" stems from the Belfast Central Railway, on which the station lies, rather than the station's location within Belfast: the station is in fact at the eastern edge of the city centre, with Great Victoria Street being much closer to the city centre. While the renaming is welcome, "Lanyon Place" is hardly the kind of memorable name that is likely to displace "Central" in the public consciousness; something more straightforward like "Laganside" would have been better in my view!

The line from Cultra to Belfast runs largely along the south shore of Belfast Lough; after changing at Central (sorry, but old habits die hard!), we headed back out along the opposite shore on the 14:25 train out to Whitehead. I'd not been on this line in many, many years, and I'd forgotten how lovely the views are across to Holywood and Bangor. We passed by the iconic Carrickfergus Castle, but unfortunately there wasn't enough time in the plans to stop for a visit. Vicki was very disappointed. (The drone shot seen in the video, incidentally, was actually filmed a couple of days later.)

Upon arrival at Whitehead at 15:00, we were met by Robin from the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, who whisked us off to the Whitehead Railway Museum. Vicki and I introduced ourselves to Robin while Geoff went and got a few extra shots; I explained I was the local (even if I haven't lived in NI for many years), and Robin immediately replied "ah, you're the fixer!" In the video, Geoff described me exactly like that as he pulled into Bangor, but that was before I'd seen either of them, so this was my first time hearing myself described like that!

The RPSI works have been based at Whitehead since 1964, but the museum was brand-new, having opened in 2017, and I'd never been, so I was really quite excited to see round. The museum only usually opens on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, but the folks at the museum had heard Geoff and Vicki were coming, so opened the museum especially for us to look round!

We quickly realised there was lots to see, more than we'd bargained for. As a result, Geoff and Vicki decided quickly that the Whitehead museum deserved its own bonus video, rather than just being a snippet in an already busy day's video, so they quickly filmed a piece to camera to act as a teaser for the bonus video. Robin then showed us round as much of the museum as we could see in about an hour — although we'd planned to get the 16:01 train to Larne, we quickly realised the 16:35 made more sense, and re-planned accordingly.

The guys at the museum were wonderful, and even though we had very little time there we got to see a fantastic amount of stuff, including a working signal box where Vicki and I both got to pull some real old-fashioned levers. Robin even gave us a lift between the station and the museum, even though it was only a 10-minute walk, to make sure we could see as much as possible — many thanks to the whole team for pulling out all the stops on the day.

A couple of the young lads from the museum joined us on the train onwards to Larne, which has some lovely views over Larne Lough that I'd forgotten all about. Once we got to Larne Harbour, at the end of the line, they headed straight back, while the three of us got off and took a quick look round. The station was, as you'd expect, deserted, there being no ferries in the harbour and little other reason to use the Harbour station over Larne Town.

Geoff and Vicki filmed the closing segment to the video outside the station, and then we headed back to Belfast on the 17:35 train. Our earlier re-planning worked out quite well, in that we ended up only having to spend half an hour in Larne Harbour, as well as avoiding the 20-minute walk from Larne Town to Larne Harbour that had been part of the previous plan. The segment where Geoff and Vicki say goodbye to me at the end of the day was actually filmed on the way back to Belfast!

We arrived back into Belfast Central at 18:36; Geoff and Vicki headed to their hotel, while I headed back to Bangor for the night, ready for another day of trains.

Wednesday 10th April (Day 17)

The next morning was the last day of ATS Ireland, and there was only one line left to do: Belfast to Derry/Londonderry, as well as the short branch to Portrush. My day started with the 10:27 from Bangor to Belfast, and I met Vicki at Belfast Central to get the 11:20 to Coleraine.

Geoff, however... off of my suggestion he'd gone to get a drone shot of Bleach Green Viaduct (which you can see in the video). Due to the location, he'd had to get a taxi to and from the viaduct site, and it took a bit of a walk to get the right shot, so he only just made the train at Yorkgate — which is why the video starts there rather than at Central.

In the video you can see me talking about the viaduct, which is part of the reason I actually appeared in the video and wasn't just out-of-shot as I was on Monday. The section from Bleach Green to Antrim was shut in 1978, with trains diverted via Lisburn, but reopened on Sunday 10th June 2001 — and I was a passenger on the very first day, again with my grandparents. According to the commemorative ticket, I was passenger number 162 (my grandparents were number 163 and 164 respectively)!

Unfortunately we were delayed by about 10 minutes at Ballymoney waiting for a late train from Derry/Londonderry to clear the single line — I've previously written about the line to Derry/Londonderry being the busiest single-track railway in the UK, and it showed itself up here — and we started to worry that we might miss our five-minute connection over the footbridge at Coleraine to make the 12:45 to Portrush. But with just one train an hour, NI Railways held the connection — and perhaps as much as half the people on the train streamed over the footbridge to catch the connection out to Portrush.

The station at Portrush was in the middle of being rebuilt, and would fully reopen a couple of months later in time for The Open golf championship, which was hosted by Royal Portrush Golf Club in 2019 for only the second time, the first being in 1951. This provided a huge boost to tourism in the area, but required quite substantial reconstruction of the existing station, which was therefore something of a construction site when we visited.

That said, for Geoff and I the visit was very brief indeed: on arrival at Portrush, we split up, with Vicki going off to explore the seaside town of Portrush. Although I said "goodbye" in the video, this was simply a convenience of the video, and in reality Geoff and I headed straight back to Coleraine on the train we'd just come in on, to go and get a very special shot for later in the video...

Outside Coleraine station we took a taxi to Downhill Strand, Northern Ireland's answer to Dawlish. The railway runs through two tunnels west of Castlerock station, emerging on the beautiful white beach at Downhill — the perfect location for a drone shot of a train. There were very few buses, so we took a taxi; the driver said he hadn't been to Downhill beach in at least a decade. Hilariously, my accent — which has been somewhat anglicised over the years of living in England — reverted and became ever more broad the more I talked to the taxi driver, to the point where even Geoff struggled to understand me at times!

We got out of the taxi and crossed under the railway bridge onto the beach itself, and Geoff got his drone out to take the shot. Sadly, he'd accidentally left it on after getting the shot at Bleach Green, and the battery had run down — all that was left in the batteries was for a brief 30-second flight where it went up and came back down again — so while it was a lovely shot of the beach and Mussenden Temple (the building perched atop the cliff above the railway), it didn't have any trains in it.

Geoff tried to get it to come back to life, but to no avail. With minutes to go until the hourly train passed through, Geoff hit upon the great idea of filming a passing shot from the beach — which you can see in the video. To steady the shot, Geoff rested the camera (tripod and all!) on my shoulder, before panning round to track the train as it passed us heading towards Derry/Londonderry. (Geoff also shot some panning shots of the train coming back the other way a few minutes later, although those weren't needed in the end.) Fortunately the panning shot worked brilliantly, and rescued what could have been a disastrous trip to Downhill.

However, there was then the small matter of Geoff and I meeting up with Vicki again to get the following train to Derry/Londonderry. My original plan had been to walk round the headland to Castlerock, but even at low tide it turned out to be impassible, at least in the shoes we were wearing. So we had to turn back and head back to the car park where the taxi had dropped us off. We thought briefly that we'd have to call another taxi to come and get us, but then Geoff checked the bus timetable online — and found there was a number 134 bus right when we needed it, heading towards Castlerock, that would get us there just five minutes before the train!

We nervously waited in the rather forlorn bus shelter for the bus to come, and I confess I was a little worried it wouldn't show up — but it showed up bang on time, or perhaps even a little early. Because of our iLink cards, we didn't even have to pay extra for the bus, and it got us to Castlerock in plenty of time for the 14:50 train to Derry/Londonderry. We were reunited with Vicki on the train, which took us right past Downhill Strand where Geoff and I had just been — which is perhaps why Vicki is so awed by the beach, whereas Geoff had already seen it!

The video sequence ("What the actual Dickens?!") — complete with specially composed extended music — perfectly captured the sense of wonder I remember feeling the first time I went on a train to Derry/Londonderry as a child, with the beautiful view suddenly emerging from the darkness of the tunnels. I still maintain that the views between Coleraine and Derry/Londonderry are perhaps the best views from a train anywhere in the British Isles; at the very least they give the West Highland Line and the Kyle Line a very good run for their money — and have a much more frequent service!

Our arrival into Derry/Londonderry was bang on time at 15:22; Geoff and Vicki got a number of shots from the platform while I waited off-camera. When they were done a handful of fans were waiting for them — they had worked out which train they were on based on Twitter — and Geoff and Vicki happily posed for selfies once they came off the platform.

After a few more shots of the external of the station — which both Geoff and Vicki took care not to actually name on camera, to avoid even being seen to take sides in the naming dispute! — and of the following train arriving into Derry/Londonderry (as seen from the new Peace Bridge), we boarded the 16:38 back to Belfast, with Geoff and Vicki taking a well-earned nap after 17 days of trains in Ireland.

And that was it: all of Northern Ireland done in less than 48 hours!

The original plan had been written to do the whole island in as short a time as possible, and while the rest of the Ireland plan had been dilated to take a good bit longer and allow plenty of time to stop and see the local sights, the Northern Irish plan remained mostly unaltered from the original 2018 plan.

With hindsight, I suspect Geoff and Vicki could or should have spent longer going round Northern Ireland: perhaps one day for the Bangor branch, one day for the Larne line, and one final day (or possibly even two days) for the line to Derry/Londonderry. That said, given my flight schedules, too much change might have meant I couldn't make it into the videos!

All in all I had a lovely few days in Northern Ireland, in which it felt like I got to show Geoff and Vicki round this wonderful railway network that I'd grown up with, and which I still cherish as one of the hidden railway gems in the UK.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

On This Day: Track-Bashing in Cardiff and London, 6th April 2014

In my quest to travel on every railway line in the UK, some lines were a lot harder than others. There are a number of diversionary routes that see very limited use in normal circumstances, but which retain a token service primarily to enable drivers to retain "route knowledge" over these lines.

One of these sections of track is the Leckwith Loop, just west of Cardiff, circled in red in the map below. This 26-chain (520m) section of track provides an alternative access between Cardiff Central station and the line towards Bridgend, through Ninian Park station rather than along the South Wales Main Line.

Map based on OpenStreetMap; © OpenStreetMap contributors
However, a previous attempt to use one of the small number of services booked over this line had failed — as the train had simply run the "normal" route along the main line. Rather than try again, I waited for a day when the main line was closed for engineering works, so that all trains would be running via the Leckwith Loop.

On Sunday 6th April 2014, such a day finally materialised. But there was a problem: there was another bit of track I needed also in use on the same day, in London!

There were engineering works at Bromley South in south-east London, with the station completely closed. This would have meant Bromley being without a train service; so instead, SouthEastern ran a service to Bromley North, which is usually closed on Sundays.

Bromley North is at the end of a 1 mile, 49 chain (2600m) branch line from Grove Park, which is ordinarily served by a simple shuttle service between Grove Park and Bromley North, running every 20 minutes on Mondays to Saturdays, with no Sunday service. (See map below.)

Map based on OpenStreetMap; © OpenStreetMap contributors
However, on this Sunday, through trains were running from London Victoria, meaning that the connection at Grove Park onto the branch — never normally used in passenger service — was being used all day! The bit of track that I wanted to travel on was perhaps less than 100m long — but it was rare enough to be worth the journey.

So, I hatched a plan. From home in Coventry, I needed to go at least as far as Bridgend to cover the Leckwith Loop, and I needed then to go to London to get to Bromley North. Coming up with a plan for the journeys was fairly straightforward, but figuring out which tickets to use was much more difficult; three singles would have been prohibitively expensive.

A bit of digging into the fares system found that Coventry to Bridgend had two available ticket routes: via Birmingham or via Reading, with the former being the cheaper (as it was a shorter route). If I went out via Birmingham and came back via Reading, then all I would need on top of that would be a Reading to London ticket, and problem solved.

So, to do this, I wanted a Coventry to Bridgend return, routed via Birmingham, with the return portion excessed to come back via Reading... which is where the trouble started. Because it was a slightly complicated ticket, I deliberately went the previous day to the ticket office in Coventry to buy it, only to be told that excesses could only be done on the day of travel. So I purchased the main return ticket, and came back the following morning in plenty of time.

Then a second problem appeared: while the cheapest fare via Birmingham is the Off-Peak Return, the cheapest via Reading is a Super Off-Peak Return. At first the ticket office tried to insist I had to excess my Off-Peak to another Off-Peak, but I pointed out the wording of the National Rail Conditions of Travel:
"If you make a journey by a route that is not valid you will be liable to pay an excess fare. The price for this will be the difference between the amount paid for the Ticket you hold and the lowest price Ticket available for immediate travel that would have entitled you to travel by that route."
Eventually, after the two clerks talked to a supervisor, they agreed to excess it to a Super Off-Peak Return. However, they weren't able to only excess one portion (perhaps due to a limitation of their IT systems) — so I had to excess both outward and return portions. The internal guidance to railway staff states that it is possible to only excess one portion, and that that should be charged at half the difference; but since that guidance isn't made publically available, I couldn't rely on it.

In the end, then, I had these four tickets (as well as a Reading to London Travelcard):

The one in the bottom-left wasn't necessary, so I paid perhaps £7.30 more than necessary, but I accepted that as a price for getting on the train I needed to get!

0837 Coventry to Birmingham New St, arr 0906
Headcode: 2C99, operated by London Midland using Desiro 350129*+350104
Distance: 19 miles

My Sunday morning started with the first departure from Coventry: all lines through Coventry are shut on Saturday nights to enable essential maintenance work to be undertaken, meaning the first train doesn't leave until after 08:30. This was an uneventful run, calling all stations to Marston Green and then running fast to Birmingham New Street, where I had a six-minute change:

0912 Birmingham New St to Newport, arr 1055
Headcode: 1V46, operated by CrossCountry using Voyager 220011
Distance: 97¾ miles

Owing to engineering works between Bristol Parkway and Swindon, this 09:12 to Plymouth was diverted via Newport — yes, a train that should have run entirely within England was diverted via Wales. This was great news for me, though, as it saved me an hour, as otherwise I couldn't have got to Newport so early — one of those wonderful unusual moments where diversions worked in my favour!

We left Birmingham by the usual route through University, running non-stop to Cheltenham as usual. But after that, we turned right to head to Gloucester, and carried on down the lovely route along the Severn Estuary, with lovely views of the Severn Bridge (M48) and the Second Severn Crossing (M4) from Chepstow, livening up an otherwise dull, grey day.

Although some of the diverted trains were reversing at Severn Tunnel Junction to head back through the Severn Tunnel and head onwards to Bristol, this involved reversing beyond the station, and where possible it is preferable to do so in a platform. Our train therefore continued another 9 miles to reverse in Newport, the next station, where we arrived three minutes early thanks to the generous timings for these engineering diversions.

1100 Newport to Bridgend, arr 1140
Headcode: 1B14, operated by Arriva Trains Wales using Sprinter 150236
Distance: 33¼ miles

At Newport, I changed onto a two-car Sprinter forming the 1009 from Hereford all the way to Fishguard Harbour — fortunately I was only going two stops to Bridgend! The train was a bit late coming in from Hereford — perhaps due to the CrossCountry services reversing at Newport and getting in the way — and eventually left about five minutes late.

Once we got to Cardiff, I poked my head out of the door to look at the signal, and was delighted to see the box above the green signal saying "N" — indicating we'd been cleared for the route towards Ninian Park — and not "M" for main line. Even with the engineering works going on, I was still in a little doubt as to whether this diversion would come off — but it did, and it was suddenly worth the journey!

We left Platform 3 at Cardiff Central on what was then called the Down Barry Relief line — but instead of heading towards Barry we peeled off right to go through Ninian Park station. Due to the track layout here, we passed through the Cardiff-bound platform in the "wrong" direction — though since Ninian Park doesn't get a Sunday service there weren't any passengers to be confused!

And then we turned onto the Leckwith Loop, a 26-chain (520m) section of track which had been the entire purpose for my journey to Bridgend. I wish I could say the track afforded some spectacular view, but the only view on offer was that of suburban Cardiff. After an all too brief minute or so, we rejoined the South Wales Main Line at Leckwith North Junction, and carried on along the normal route to Bridgend along the South Wales Main Line.

I arrived in Bridgend and crossed smartly to the other platform, to head straight back to London:

1153 (actual 1159) Bridgend to London Paddington, arr 1551 (actual 1542)
Headcode: 1L54, operated by First Great Western using HST set OC47 with 43093+43124
Distance: 183¾ miles

Due to the aforementioned engineering works between Bristol Parkway and Swindon, this train was taking the long way round to London — in more ways than one — turning a journey that should have taken 2 hours and 50 minutes into a 4-hour marathon. As a treat to myself, and since the train was expected to be fairly busy, I elected to pay the £20 for a first-class upgrade, which got me some snacks and a decent seat with a view for this long trip.

Here's a map showing the usual route (in blue), and our diversion (in orange):

Map based on OpenStreetMap; © OpenStreetMap contributors
We left about six minutes late, and retraced our steps to Cardiff, again travelling via the Leckwith Loop and continued through Ninian Park station. Since the Leckwith Loop is only a single-track chord, this didn't produce any new track for me, but it did mean use of the crossover at Leckwith North Junction. We then approached Cardiff Central on the Up Barry Relief, before crossing the ladder at the west end of the station to gain access to Platform 1.

From Cardiff Central we departed and proceeded as normal to call at Newport, and then carried on through the Severn Tunnel to Bristol Parkway. Since the route onwards towards Swindon was shut, after a 6-minute stop we reversed direction to head down Filton Bank (which was still two-track back then!) to Bristol Temple Meads.

After a 13-minute stop at Bristol Temple Meads we reversed direction again to call at Bath Spa. But even the normal route onwards from Bath Spa was blocked, so we deviated right at Bathampton Junction to head through Bradford-on-Avon and Trowbridge towards Westbury.

Just before Westbury, at Hawkeridge Junction, we peeled off onto the Westbury East Loop — allowing us to head towards London without having to reverse once more in Westbury station — and joined the "Berks and Hants" route into London, through Newbury. Although I'd done the Westbury East Loop before, it was always nice to do such an unusual piece of track again — like the Leckwith Loop, it gets a handful of services a day, so it's much easier to do it during engineering works.

We carried on to Reading, where we arrived on time; however, due to even more engineering works, only two of the four tracks between London and Reading were open, so we crossed to the Up Relief east of Reading to crawl along the lines usually used by stopping trains. We ran quite early, so much so that we were held at Heathrow Airport Junction for six minutes awaiting a train from Heathrow to go in front of us.

Once we got to Ladbroke Grove, where the four-track main line widens out into six tracks for the final approach to Paddington, we crossed unusually all the way across from Line 6 to Line 1 — enabling us to arrive into Platform 4 at Paddington a full nine minutes early at 15:42.

I hot-footed it to the tube to head onwards to Victoria:

Bakerloo Line: 1545 Paddington to Oxford Circus, arr 1553
Victoria Line: 1554 Oxford Circus to Victoria, arr 1558

Thanks to a very efficient cross-platform interchange at Oxford Circus, I arrived in Victoria only 16 minutes after I arrived in Paddington, very good going indeed! I recall the Bromley North service was running half-hourly, but I'd already had a long day and I was glad to be able to speed along onto my train to Bromley North:

1608 London Victoria to Bromley North, arr 1642
Headcode: 2U40, operated by Southeastern using Networker 465016
Distance: 12¼ miles

To get to Bromley North from Victoria required almost as much of a magical mystery tour through South London as I had just had through Wiltshire and Berkshire! We departed on time from Platform 6 at Victoria, initially on the Down Chatham Slow, but crossing to the Down Chatham Fast at Grosvenor Bridge Junction. From there we carried on to Brixton Junction, where we turned left to run via the Catford Loop through Denmark Hill — another slightly unusual piece of track to be using.

We called at Denmark Hill, Peckham Rye and Nunhead before turning left at Nunhead Junction to head towards Lewisham. But instead of using Platform 4 at Lewisham, as most trains from Victoria would, we used Platform 2, in order to head down the main line from Charing Cross through Hither Green.

Just outside Grove Park, we crossed from the Down Slow all the way over to the branch platform (Platform 1), using the very unusual connection onto the branch — and when I say unusual, I mean it doesn't have any booked passenger services! On the one hand, this meant I didn't technically need to do it, as it didn't count as a line with a regularly-scheduled passenger service; but on the other hand, getting a passenger train over a bit of track that isn't normally used is pretty cool, no?

After a minute or two stopped in the branch platform, we continued onwards to Bromley North — and although I didn't need to do the connection, I did need to do the branch itself, which I hadn't. However, while they'd opened Bromley North station specially on this Sunday to provide a service to the people of Bromley, they didn't bother doing the same for the one intermediate station on the branch at Sundridge Park — so, even more unusually, we sailed non-stop through the station!

Arrival into Platform 2 at Bromley North was bang on time, at 16:42. By this stage the dull greyness had given way to drizzle, and rather than try and do anything clever I simply returned to the train to head back into Victoria:

1655 Bromley North to London Victoria, arr 1726
Headcode: 2U90, operated by Southeastern using Networker 465016
Distance: 12¼ miles

After stopping at Grove Park platform 1, we crossed to the Up Slow to retrace our steps to Victoria, getting held briefly at Nunhead Junction for a train crossing our path. This brief delay meant we arrived into Victoria three minutes late at 17:29. By this stage I was quite hungry and grabbed some food to eat on the way home, before heading back to the tube and back to Paddington:

Victoria Line: 1744 Victoria to Oxford Circus, arr 1748
Bakerloo Line: 1751 Oxford Circus to Paddington, arr 1759

Another cross-platform interchange at Oxford Circus, though the frequency on the Bakerloo line meant it wasn't quite as efficient as the previous one. Although I was heading back to Coventry, and the fastest route to do so would have been to head to Euston, because of the combination of tickets I'd used I had to go back via Reading, which meant leaving once more from Paddington:

1815 London Paddington to Reading, arr 1911
Headcode: 2R63, operated by First Great Western using Turbo 165109*+165131
Distance: 36 miles

We left from Platform 13 at Paddington, one of the former Metropolitan Railway platforms converted for use by mainline trains, which has now disappeared: in order to lengthen Platform 12, Platform 13 had to go (or rather, Platforms 12 and 13 were effectively merged).

Since I had to head back to Reading anyway, I elected to take a stopping train — as this gave a useful opportunity for a friend of mine in West Drayton to lend me a high-visibility jacket, which I needed for the following weekend. He duly met me on the platform and handed the orange jacket off through the train door, and I carried on to Reading without delay. (Possibly more of that story soon!)

I knew that the CrossCountry trains from Reading to Coventry were only every hour, and I knew that I would likely just miss one, it being due out just two minutes before we arrived. However, I also knew that CrossCountry trains — by their nature of crossing the country — have a tendency to be late... as we were pulling in, I checked my phone and saw that the 19:09 hadn't left yet, so upon arriving at Platform 13 at Reading I ran up onto the huge brand-new footbridge and over to Platform 8...

1909 (actual 1912) Reading to Coventry, arr 2023
Headcode: 1M70, operated by CrossCountry using Voyager 220001
Distance: 79¾ miles

Made it, just! We left just 90 seconds after I'd arrived at Reading. The rest of the journey home to Coventry was an uneventful journey on a familiar route: the only oddity being that we were routed through Didcot Parkway station (via Platform 3) without stopping, instead of going round the avoiding lines; this is sometimes done to avoid a conflict, although it does slow the train down a little bit.

Nearly 12 hours after I left, I arrived back into Coventry just a minute late, after a very successful 474-mile day... of which perhaps 4 miles were new track — such is the life of track-bashing!

Sunday, 29 March 2020

On This Day: Diversions During the Reading Blockade, Easter 2013

Since we're all locked down due to the current pandemic, and I therefore can't indulge my hobby of going on trains for a fun weekend, I thought it might help everyone if I looked back at some of the many, many trips I've taken but never written about. So, welcome to the revival of my blog!

Today's trip is from seven years ago today: Friday 29th March 2013, which was Good Friday. Due to the massive remodelling of Reading station, First Great Western trains were subject to some incredible diversions — so some friends and I took a trip to Paignton and back to sample the diversions.

I think it's worth taking a moment to remember how transformational a project the Reading remodelling was: adding five new full-length platforms (while closing two short bay platforms), but more importantly grade-separating most of the conflicting movements to the west of the station with the incredible flyover structure installed.

For comparison, here's the 2009 track layout:

And the 2015 track layout:

Obviously to get from one to the other took a lot of work, and one big chunk of that was done over the four-day bank holiday weekend at Easter 2013, which saw Reading shut to all but a handful of trains. The main job at Easter 2013 was to open platforms 12-15 and to slue the Relief Lines (shown above in green) to the north to create the space to build the rest of the new layout to the west of the station.

However, with Reading shut, there's not an obvious way to get trains from the Westcountry and South Wales into London. But not running any trains would simply have left hundreds, maybe thousands of people trying to wait for dreaded rail replacement buses. This simply wasn't acceptable.

Instead, some very commendable long-term planning on the part of First Great Western and Network Rail ensured that an hourly service between London and each of Bristol, Cardiff and Plymouth could be maintained throughout the block, using a variety of fascinating diversionary routes, shown in the map below.

Map based on OpenStreetMap; © OpenStreetMap contributors
The orange lines through Reading were shut for through trains for the whole weekend. Instead, trains to Bristol and Cardiff used the diversionary route into London Paddington via Banbury shown in green, while trains to Exeter and onwards to Plymouth and Penzance used route shown in blue into and out of London Waterloo!

Both routes were incredibly rare territory for HSTs to use, especially the route into Waterloo. So my friends and I hatched a plan to go to Paignton and back, going out from Waterloo via Basingstoke, and coming back via Bristol and Banbury into Paddington.

As I was living in Coventry at the time, my day started with a Pendolino from Coventry to London Euston:

0811 Coventry to London Euston, arr 0913 (actual 0924)
Headcode: 1R21, operated by Virgin Trains using Pendolino 390154

Oddly, even though it was a bank holiday, Virgin Trains were running more or less a full weekday service, complete with extra peak trains. Needless to say my train was pretty empty.

Unfortunately we were held at Rugby for seven minutes to allow the late-running 04:28 from Glasgow Central to pass us. We lost a bit more time en route and eventually arrived into Euston 11 minutes late, meaning I had to hot-foot it to Waterloo:

Northern Line: 0928 Euston to Waterloo, arr 0937

By the time I arrived the others were already on the platform for the FGW train to Penzance:

0959 London Waterloo to Newton Abbot, arr 1352
Headcode: 1V36, operated by First Great Western using HST 43168+43040

The train was fully reserved in standard class, so we walked to the far end of the train and took up a bay of seats in first class - £20 for the upgrade was more than worth it for the four-hour trip to Newton Abbot. Because the diversion entails a reversal en route, the train had first class at the country end, not the usual London end, so we had quite a trek to the far end of platform 11 to board our train.

For some bizarre reason, although the FGW HSTs were booked to leave Waterloo at xx:07 — sandwiched between the xx:05 to Weymouth and the xx:09 to Poole — they were advertised as departing eight minutes earlier. The train was advertised to depart at 09:59 — although the automated announcements at Waterloo didn't have all the stations to Penzance recorded, so the announcements had some hilarious gaps in them — but we actually pulled out at 10:07.

On previous occasions, HST diversions into Waterloo had been limited to the Windsor side, either direct from Reading via Waterloo, or from Woking via Chertsey. As I recall, this was the first time HSTs had been allowed to run along the South Western Main Line all the way up through Surbiton and Wimbledon.

We were booked non-stop from Waterloo to Basingstoke, getting a pretty decent run at 42 minutes start-to-stop — only a couple of minutes longer than a non-stop run on (then) South West Trains. One of our friends was busy and couldn't make it, so a couple of our party decided to bellow out the droplights as we went through his station — though I'm not sure the good people of SW19 were expecting to hear "GOOD MORNING, WIMBLEDON" from a passing HST!

After our stop at Basingstoke we continued towards Salisbury, getting checked briefly outside Salisbury station, before carrying on through Warminster and into Westbury. At this point we rejoined territory much more familiar for FGW HSTs, but in order to do so the driver had to change ends — the lines to Salisbury and Taunton face the same way out of Westbury. The reversal put first class into the more normal position at the back end of the train.

After the reversal, which took all of five minutes, we carried on — still bang on time — round the Frome avoiding lines, to Castle Cary, where we had a long 9-minute stand in order to regain some semblance of a "normal" path — presumably the fact that Westbury only has three platforms prevented us from dwelling there any longer.

We carried on, calling at Taunton and Tiverton Parkway, and into Exeter St David's, where we again had a long booked stand, this time of 17 minutes. This would probably have been done in order to keep most of the local service around Exeter — the lines to Barnstaple, Exmouth and Paignton — running to a relatively standard timetable.

The last leg of our journey took us down the wonderful stretch past the sea wall at Dawlish, and onwards to our arrival at Newton Abbot at 13:52, bang on time.

Unfortunately, our connecting train to Paignton was not on time; it was coming the other way, via Banbury and then via Bristol — and there had been a problem between Banbury and Oxford with a previous train, making our train just over an hour late. The original plan of having about 45 minutes in Paignton was thus scuppered, as our train was in fact going to be terminated at Newton Abbot. More significantly, this meant our train back to London was going to start from Newton Abbot.

However, while I'd previously been to Torquay some years previously, I'd never done the last bit of track from Torquay to Paignton — so I all but insisted that we get another train to Paignton and back, even if it only gave us about 10 minutes in the town. We wandered into the small town of Newton Abbot to find some lunch — I think we ended up with fish and chips — and then back to the station.

1441 Newton Abbot to Paignton, arr 1500
Headcode: 2T19, operated by First Great Western using Pacer 143603
1513 Paignton to Newton Abbot, arr 1529
Headcode: 2F41, operated by First Great Western using Pacer 143603

We took a Pacer to Paignton and came straight back, barely even stepping onto the platform, but at least the original aim of getting to Paignton was fulfilled. The train was fairly busy with families going to and from the seaside on a chilly but not unpleasant Good Friday. Of course, Pacers don't have first class, so we had to suffer standard class with the rest of the travelling public...

We changed at Newton Abbot once more, crossing the footbridge to our train, which was just arriving an hour later than it should have been, to head back to London.

1549 Newton Abbot to London Paddington, arr 2025
Headcode: 1A27, operated by First Great Western using HST 43010+43182

Once again, we paid the £20 upgrade to sit in first class, as this journey was nearly 5 hours long, taking an even longer route to get back to London. We retraced our steps as far as Taunton, though this time calling at Teignmouth and Dawlish, with a longer-than-usual stop at Teignmouth putting us a few minutes late, but we were back on time by Taunton.

After Taunton, we turned left at Cogload Junction instead of right, and carried on towards Bristol instead of Westbury. We called at Weston-super-Mare, which involved going on the loop through the station instead of round the (much faster) avoiding lines — which was track I hadn't been on until that day, so I was very pleased to finally do that bit of track!

From Weston we carried on to Bristol Temple Meads, calling in platform 7 before carrying on to call at Bath Spa, Chippenham and Swindon. So far, so normal for a train to Paddington... but it was about to get decidedly weird.

We continued up the Great Western Main Line towards Didcot, but just before Didcot we turned left — at Foxhall Junction — to take the Didcot West Curve, a piece of track making up the third side of the triangle at Didcot, which normally gets very few passenger trains. It briefly saw a regular service in the early 2000s, when FGW tried running direct trains between Bristol and Oxford, but they never took off.

(Actually, until recently the last CrossCountry train from Reading to Birmingham ran via Foxhall Junction to reverse there and use the Didcot West Curve — for route knowledge retention purposes — and by coincidence I'd been on exactly that train three days previously, after an evening ticking off the old connection between the main part of Reading station and the "Southern" lines towards Wokingham... but that's another story.)

So to get to go round the Didcot West Curve (just before sunset) was great fun, and a bizarre bit of track to be doing on a train from Newton Abbot to Paddington. We kept going to Oxford, which was our last passenger stop before London Paddington, before continuing north.

The train then carried on northwards to Banbury, where we reversed — and in order to allow the reversal to take place, two brand-new semaphore signals had been installed! There had long been shunt signals to allow reversals to take place, but these are not generally allowed to be used by passenger trains, so they were replaced with brand-new signals, complete with finials (the decorative pointy caps on top of the signal post).

From Banbury we then retraced our steps back to Aynho Junction, turning left there and heading through Bicester North and up the Chiltern route towards London. (Now, you may ask why we didn't use the direct line from Oxford to Bicester to save the faff of reversing at Banbury. The answer is that back in 2013, the line from Oxford to Bicester Town was just a branch line, with the Bicester south chord not having been built — so reversal at Banbury was the only option.)

We carried on through Princes Risborough, High Wycombe and Gerrards Cross — all most unusual places for a FGW HST to be passing through! — before getting to West Ruislip. If we carried on we would have ended up at London Marylebone, so instead here we crossed over, to head south on the northbound track as far as South Ruislip, in order to gain the single line towards Greenford.

The line from South Ruislip to Greenford and onwards to Old Oak Common is the remants of the New North Main Line: the Chiltern route was originally a joint venture between the Great Western Railway and the Great Central Railway, to provide them both with a faster route to Birmingham.

However, the connection to Paddington fell into disuse from the 1990s, when services towards Birmingham were concentrated on London Marylebone. A single Chiltern Railways train per day was retained between London Paddington and West Ruislip to keep up route knowledge. But even that ceased to run in December 2018, when the route between Old Oak Common and Greenford was required to close for conversion to use by HS2, meaning that the Chiltern service now only runs between West Ealing and West Ruislip.

So to have a FGW HST running along this stretch of the New North Main Line, while incredibly rare, was a sort-of tribute to a bygone age of express trains from Paddington to Birmingham (and on to Birkenhead!), and the unusual track made for a very enjoyable end to a long day.

We'd made good time en route; although we'd left Banbury about 7 minutes late, the timings through Greenford had a bit of slack in them (a sensible precaution when trying to run four trains per hour over a single-track line), so we arrived into Paddington platform 8 four minutes early at 20:21.

The five of us went our separate ways, and I grabbed a bite to eat (I think I may have gone to McDonalds, but I don't remember all that well now!) before heading for the tube to Euston:

Bakerloo Line: 2046 Paddington to Oxford Circus, arr 2054
Victoria Line: 2056 Oxford Circus to Euston, arr 2058

I opted for the double-back at Oxford Circus, this being a little bit faster than the Circle Line — and I'm glad I did, as I made a train back to Coventry with just a minute to spare:

2103 London Euston to Coventry, arr 2206
Headcode: 1G46, operated by Virgin Trains using Pendolino 390154

By sheer coincidence, I ended up on the same Pendolino that I'd had that morning! The run back to Coventry was much less eventful than the morning run, and I arrived back on time to complete a 673¼-mile day, and one of my longest-ever days on trains.

I recently discovered that I'd managed to save some paper timetables from the day — such was the extent of the works that FGW deemed it worth producing hefty booklets showing all the trains on their diversionary routes (though an hilarious misprint meant "Taunton" was printed instead of "Truro" on the front cover!).

The dates on the cover tell another story: although the full block at Reading was only four days, there then followed a week of a very temporary weekday timetable, with only half of Reading station open, while they tied the remaining tracks back together.

That temporary timetable did not go very well: the timetabling was a bit too optimistic, and coupled with a slightly late completion of the engineering works, Easter Tuesday did not go well for FGW. A few hasty changes were made to the timetable for the rest of the week.

But, after another all-line block on the following Sunday to complete the works, the station reopened in full the following Monday (8th April) and settled down to work in a temporary configuration for a couple of years, while the flyover was being built.

Two years later, another all-line block at Easter 2015 was undertaken, with similar diversions, to complete the work at Reading and bring the flyover into use. (I confess that I'd enjoyed the 2013 diversions so much that I did it that I took a trip to Taunton and back in 2015 to experience it all over again — though that trip I did the other way round!)

Ever since, Reading has gone from being one of the worst-performing stations, causing delay to almost every passenger who passed through, to one of the best-performing stations in the country — a testament to a vision for change on the railways.

I hope to write more of these blogs in the future to keep us all sane during lockdown — let me know if there's any particular areas of the country from which you'd like to hear about my travels!