Category Archives: Travel Reports

Reports on journeys made by public transport.

East Midlands Finale

Following on from ‘Lost In Leicester’, this post records the events of one Wednesday; our last full day on and around the East Midlands rail network during our August 2017 holiday based in Leicester.

Class 43 number 43060 on the rear of a northbound service at East Midlands Parkway station
Power & Pollution: 43060 emits a plume of diesel fumes as it powers away from East Midlands Parkway. We need electrification.
In the morning we took the 09:25 from Leicester to East Midlands Parkway. This was an Intercity 125 set powered by 43081 and 43060. I photographed the latter, which was on the rear of the train, as it left East Midlands Parkway with the cooling towers of Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station as a backdrop. I had previously planned to change trains here in the afternoon to take photos of passing trains with the power station in the background, but it would have involved spending an hour on the station. My grandmother was concerned that it might not be a nice place to spend an hour (she hadn’t noticed a waiting room when we had passed through previously) so I amended the plan to have 15 minutes for photography in the morning instead.

Diesel multiple unit 158810 at East Midlands Parkway
Cooling Towers: 158810 arrives at East Midlands Parkway
During that time, I was able to photograph a class 222 ‘Meridian’ and a southbound class 158 before our next train, 158810, arrived. This service was due to depart East Midlands Parkway at 09:56 and we stayed with it all the way to its destination (Lincoln). The route crosses the East Coast Main Line on the Newark flat-crossing; a rather rare arrangement of track particularly when one of the routes is such an important main line.

Photograph of Lincoln station with two single class 153s waiting in the platforms
Luckless Lincoln: 153376 and 153383, awaiting their next duties in Lincoln station.
I had pondered several other possibilities for the day’s journeys, including other routes to/from Lincoln, but I was concerned about the quality of rolling stock I might find. These concerns were justified on arrival in Lincoln; apart from our train everything present was a single class 153, which the exception of the Pacer on the Northern service to/from Sheffield.

The bottom of 'Steep Hill' in Lincoln.
It Gets Steeper: the bottom of ‘Steep Hill’ in Lincoln.
I had allowed just over two hours in Lincoln and this was just as well because our walk up to the cathedral (a lot more impressive than Leicester’s) and back took over an hour. Our route took as past the Corn Exchange and up a street named, I kid you not, ‘Steep Hill’. It certainly lived up to its name, rather surprisingly given the miles of largely flat country our train had travelled through to take us here.

The towers of Lincoln cathedral
Three Tall Towers: Lincoln’s very impressive cathedral, seen from just outside the castle.
At the top of the hill, as well as the cathedral, was Lincoln castle; only a small part of which was visible from where we were walking. Back at Lincoln station, we boarded the 13:37 Lincoln to Leicester service, formed of 156415. This we left at Nottingham, having spotted what appeared to be the remains of a previous Nottingham station just prior to our arrival at the current one.

A composite image of Nottingham railway station
Red And (slightly) Dead: a composite image of the slightly odd, but impressive, Nottingham station.
In the time we had available, we took a look around part of the current station and spotted a canal with old warehouse buildings alongside. The station is rather grand in my opinion but I wasn’t entirely sure whether I liked the monochrome colouration of the buildings (slightly different shades of red; presumably purpose-made brick). My grandmother seemed to dislike the whole design, but we both agreed that the new bridge which carries the NET (Nottingham Express Transit) trams over the mainline station is not attractive.

Class 153 number 153319 and a fellow-unit at Derby station
Not So Super Sprinters: the pair of 153s at Derby. Despite their failings, the class 153s are officially known as ‘Super Sprinters’, just like their large-windowed class 156 cousins.
Our next train, the 15:20 departure, was the only time our luck failed us in terms of East Midlands Trains rolling stock. This service, bound for Matlock, was formed of a pair of class 153 units. Ours was 153319 and the other was 153302. The problem with class 153s is that their windows are too small to allow the bays of four seats around a table to properly align with them. Passengers on at least one side of the table therefore have their view interrupted by a window pillar. I suspect the only way of making these trains work for passengers would be to go for an airline-style seating layout throughout with only one row of seats per window (two wouldn’t provide sufficient legroom). Fortunately, we had already done this route so an impaired view wasn’t much of an issue and we were getting off fairly soon anyway (at Derby).

Melton Mowbray railway station
Nowhere To Hide: a shot of Melton Mowbray station from earlier in the week; the waiting rooms here are probably closed for the night by the time the evening train from London arrives.
The next leg was considered the ‘do or die’ section of our tour of the east midlands rail network. Our service was the 16:36 Derby to London St. Pancras, the only service of the day from Derby to Corby via Melton Mowbray and Oakham. In order to travel the section of line between Oakham and Corby in both directions, we would have had to wait just over an hour in Kettering for the day’s only through service from London to Melton Mowbray, which terminates at the latter and would have left us with a wait of over 40 minutes there for a train back to Leicester. We wouldn’t have got ‘back to base’ until 20:46, which was a worry. Thus, I would have to try and observe both sides of the line in a one-way trip.

Class 222 DMU number 222103 at Derby station
Tense Wait: 222103 stands at Derby station while we wait to be allowed on board
Another worry was that this service was the only London service we had seen formed of a 4-car Meridian, 222103 on this occasion, rather than a longer train. Could we get a decent seat? After an agonisingly long wait standing by the door, the guard finally unlocked them and we boarded and managed to find good seats. So far, so good. The highlight of the trip was to be the Harringworth Viaduct, apparently also known as the Welland Viaduct and as the Seaton Viaduct. A larger number of tunnels than anticipated contributed to me not being entirely sure we had reached it, and I failed to spot the trackbed of the closed line that passes under the line near one end of it. After a fairly long station dwell at Corby, the train continued to Kettering (with little sign of the promised electrification works) where it would have another long wait; and where we were getting off. Although I would have liked to go back over the line, the fact the waiting room at Melton Mowbray would almost certainly be closed for the night (making the long wait there very undesirable) didn’t help the case for that option. I also wanted to get back to Leicester at a reasonable time so opted to board 222012 which was waiting at Kettering with a Sheffield service that took as directly back to Leicester.

Lost In Leicester

A street in Matlock, viewed from a train window while passing over a bridge above the street.
Leaving Matlock: the view from our train as we ran through Matlock
Last week’s post, The Mainlines Of Yesteryear, was intended to report on the 15th of August, the Tuesday of our holiday based in Leicester. However, that post became rather lengthy so I decided to break it into two parts. At the ‘interval’, my grandmother and I were on board a class 156 DMU, 156415, which had been due to leave Matlock at 15:37.

We left this train, which would then continue to Newark Castle, at Derby. Considering that Derby is home to the last remaining British Rail works that still builds new trains, its station (as we had seen briefly earlier in the week) is a rather bland affair that does little to suggest that heritage. With about 50 minutes in Derby this time, I intended to seek out what remained of a traditional station.

Photo showing Derby's clock-topped 'roundhouse'.
The Roundhouse: one of Derby’s railway relics
A fine 19th century railway building which is visible from the platforms is ‘The Roundhouse’, which I had already featured in the background of photographs taken on the first day of the holiday. Now a venue for various events, this structure has found a new use after become surplus to the rail industry’s requirements.

Photo of the taxi-rank area outside Derby station with Network Rail buildings in the background
Network Rail Buildings: possible steam-age survivors at Derby
Most of the steam-era station buildings not been so lucky. The platform furthest from the roundhouse however retains a number of two-storey and three-storey brick buildings which appear to predate the operational parts of the station. At least one of these is adorned with Network Rail logos, so is presumably in use, but none of them are particularly ornate.

Photo showing former station entrance clock (in the background) at Derby
The Old Clock: ornate former station entrance half-hidden behind the wall at one end of the platform.
The sole visible relic at the opposite end of that platform is a different story. Largely hidden from view, a dragon-topped clock stands behind a wall. Wikipedia tells me that this clock was once part of the Victorian station entrance but was moved to its current location in the station car park when the rest of the building was demolished.

Today’s entrance is rather less grand, but besides investigating the architecture our stop in Derby served another purpose. Following the tribulations on our northbound journey from Wales, I had decided that travel on CrossCountry’s intercity routes without a reservation was too risky. We therefore visiting the ticket office in Derby station and booked our seats for the XC leg of the journey back to Wales.

East Midlands Trains Intercity 125 set in the sidings next to Derby station
Coaches Close To Home? IC125 in Derby; the mark 3 coaches were apparently built at Derby works.
While we were on the station, a full East Midlands Trains IC125 set spent a short while in one of the sidings adjacent to the station, presumably heading to, from or around the city’s Etches Park train maintenance depot. After that had gone and I had collected a shot or two for my planned video regarding the recent cancellation of electrification projects, we returned to Leicester for the night on the 17:01. My photographic record suggests that the Meridian working this service was number 222005.

As I’ve been discussing Derby station you were probably wondering why the title of this post is ‘Lost In Leicester’. That name came about because, in the evening after returning from Derby, we took an unintentionally extended tour of Leicester. We knew there was a cathedral to be seen, where my grandmother was hoping to ‘see’ Richard the third, and George Bradshaw’s 1863 ‘handbook’ told of a former castle.

A 3-photo panorama of the frontage of Leicester station in the evening sun
Sunshine Station: a 3-photo panorama of Leicester station in glorious evening sunshine

In order to see these I had planned a circular route of just over 1.8 miles on Google Earth. We were heading in the planned direction when we set off from the railway station alongside the A594 ‘Waterloo Way’ dual carriageway but soon came adrift. I knew we needed to turn right at some point, but down on the ground I wasn’t sure when.

Brick building with stone columns and arches in Leicester
Court View: one of the buildings we passed on ‘New Walk’
In fact we overshot the right turn I had planned, but only slightly, and were treated to the pedestrianised ‘New Walk’; a pleasant tree-lined street, as a result. So far so good. Our big error came when we came almost to the end of ‘New Walk’ and needed to veer slightly to the left in order to head east towards the river Soar. Instead I think we must have turned sharply into King Street and began heading almost due south, because we passed a neat brick-built crescent and then came to Leicester prison.

A curved brick building and its neighbours in or near Welford Place, Leicester
Wrong Turn? This is Welford Place, Leicester, at the junction of Newarke Street and Welford Road. New Walk ends just round the corner out of shot to the right.
As far as I can tell, we then headed north up Welford Road almost to where we had left ‘New Walk’ and then turned left into Newarke Street as we should have done earlier. I cannot remember the full details of the muddle we got ourselves into, but seem to recall deciding that the signposts for pedestrians were useless and that only the maps on the signs could be trusted. I think we even passed one signpost for the cathedral and then, further along the same street, saw another pointing in the opposite direction.

Castle gate in Leicester
Welcome Discovery: we were somewhat relieved when we finally found ‘Castle View’ and its old castle gate
Eventually, we came to the street called ‘Castle View’, mentioned in my Bradshaw’s. Spanning this lane was a gateway, presumably one of two Bradshaw described (one as being in ruins) as being remains of the castle. Beyond that gateway a brick building, the Leicester Castle Business School, stands in a courtyard. If the information boards are to be believed, this contains another part of the old castle, possibly the great hall mentioned in the historic railway guidebook.

The Leicester Castle Business School building
Castle Hall: the business school building inside the castle walls.
Also surviving the centuries is a tall mound that, Bradshaw writes, is all that remains of a castle destroyed in 1645. Given that this is the same site as the gatehouse and great hall mentioned above, I am a little confused by the guide; are the mound and gatehouse somehow part of separate castles? Or was Bradshaw simply too keen to describe features as the sole surviving section of the castle?

Leaves of different colours in Leicester's castle gardens, seen from the castle mound
August Colours: Leicester’s castle gardens seen from the mound
After a rest on top of the mound, which according to the information boards has been reduced in height, we descended into the public gardens behind the business school building. The ‘Castle Gardens’ as they are called run along the bank of the River Soar, we headed north to St Augustine Road and, as planned, turned right to head for the cathedral.

Merged photo from two images of Leicester cathedral
Not particularly impressive: Leicester cathedral
The resting place of King Richard III, as cathedrals go, is rather restrained. I have probably seen lesser churches which are more impressive. There were however a few interesting architectural features on and around some of the surrounding buildings. Unfortunately, by this point it was too late for my grandmother to go inside the cathedral.

Photo of the Turkey Cafe, Leicester
Turkey Cafe: another of the interesting buildings we passed on our walk around Leicester
From there we continued as planned, or not far off course, towards our temporary place of residence. On the way, we passed another few interesting buildings and stopped off at the restaurant we used for most of our evening meals during the week. Getting lost had extended our walk from the planned route of around 1.8 miles to possibly 2.5 miles but we had seen what I set out to see so the evening wasn’t a total disaster.

The Mainlines Of Yesteryear

East Midlands Trains' 222010 and another class 222 at Loughborough station
Loughborough Meridians: 222010 and a classmate at Loughborough (Midland Main Line) station
This post was nearly titled ‘Back To The Past’, since it follows on from ‘Back To The Future’, the previous instalment in my ‘Roving The Midlands’ travel report series and features a visit to a heritage railway.

Our travels on Tuesday 15th August began with a short hop along the Midland Main Line from Leicester to Loughborough, the home of Brush Traction, on board ‘Meridian’ 222010 which formed the 09:30 to Sheffield. There we temporarily bade the modern railway farewell and took a taxi to the other Loughborough station, home of the persevered Great Central Railway’s locomotive fleet.

The entrance to the Great Central heritage railway's station in Loughborough
Great Central Station: entrance to the heritage railway in Loughborough.

The engine shed at Loughborough we left for later in order to board the 10:15 steam service for the journey along the length of what is claimed to be Britain’s only mainline heritage railway. The route was indeed once part of the Great Central Railway’s main line, which according to Wikipedia opened in 1899. Around 70 years later much of it was considered to be unnecessarily duplicating other main lines and therefore closed.

Steam train at Leicester North station
End Of The Line For Steam: our train at Leicester North, with the rusty totem signage just visible on the left.
The particular section that has been reopened as a ‘mainline heritage railway’ certainly is a ‘duplicate route’ as the train was taking us back towards Leicester. The southern terminus of the heritage operation, Leicester North station, is however a long way from the city centre and national rail station, hence my decision to join the heritage railway at its northern end. The totem signs here were rusty; perhaps artificially so since this station is presented in 1960s style (which of course was when the line closed). The transitional era depicted also permits the station staff there to wear uniforms featuring the British Rail double-arrow logo.

Signal cabin at Rothley station on the Great Central Railway
Shades Of Green: Rothley Signal Box
After the engine had run round, we headed back north to Rothley station where we were due to arrive at 11:17. I can only assume that the shade of green coating the signal box and various features on the platform was used by the original Great Central Railway company, although the warning signs on the foot crossing were London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) ones. Somewhat inexplicably, these platform features included several Great Western Railway benches; I don’t think this was ever G.W.R. territory but I’m not an expert on railway company boundaries.

GWR benches on the platform at Rothley on the Great Central Railway
Which Great Railway? GWR benches on the platform at Rothley.
Our next train, due at 11:35, was the other rake of the two in service on the day and would take us back to Leicester North. While waiting for this at Rothley my grandmother visited the café and I took a look at the garden railway. As a result of this we only just made it back onto the platform in time to catch the train (the staff may even have held it briefly as they saw us heading for it). To my slight disappointment the 2-6-0 locomotive hauling the train was the same type as the one hauling the other set of coaches, an LMS/BR class 2.

Looking south from Rothley station to where the double track line from Loughborough reduces to single track
Single Southwards: two tracks merging into a single-track at the southern end of Rothley station.
The section between Rothley and Leicester North is, like other heritage railways, single-track and traversed (at least on the day of our visit) at low speed. The first impressions of a passenger starting their visit to the railway from Leicester North might therefore be one of a ‘sleepy branch line’, despite the fact that this was once the Great Central Main Line.

A view of Leicester North Station from behind the buffer stops.
Single Platform: Leicester North Station with the bricked-up entrance to the now-demolished original island platform just visible above the train.
Leicester North is the railway’s only station with just a single platform at the side of the formation, and was built from scratch for the heritage operation. Intriguingly, the other three stations (Rothley, Quorn & Woodhouse and Loughborough) all have an island platform between a pair of tracks (so two platform faces). A former station on the site of today’s Leicester North had the same island platform arrangement but was demolished due to it being in poor condition.

Quorn and Woodhouse station on the double-track Great Central main line.
On The Double: Quorn and Woodhouse station on the double-track Great Central main line.
Staying with the second rake we departed Leicester North on the 12:05 service, this time bound for Loughborough. North of Rothley, the ‘mainline’ claims of today’s Great Central are far-more justifiable as the route is double-track. Unlike on other heritage lines, our train was thus able to pass the other without stopping to exchange single-line tokens, although this happened to occur only moments before we called at Quorn & Woodhouse anyway. We did however still appear to be limited to the same low speeds of the country’s various preserved branch lines.

L.N.E.R. buffet car in the platform at Loughborough on the Great Central Railway
Strange Route: the places listed on the side of the teak carriage do not appear to belong to a single train service.
As with other heritage railways, most of the coaching stock appeared to be of the British Railways mark 1 design. Back at Loughborough however I was able to photograph two older vehicles, one (out of service) in LMS livery and an LNER varnished teak buffet car in our train. The latter had traditional destination boards on the side with a curious list of place names: Marylebone, Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield. All were presumably served by the original Great Central but surely a train service would not have followed such an indirect route.

Platform furniture, buildings and canopy at Loughborough on the Great Central Railway
Blues And Greens: the slightly uncomplimentary colour schemes on the Great Central station at Loughborough.
The colour scheme at Loughborough’s heritage station was a curious mix of British Railways (eastern region) blue and black and green seen at Rothley. Surprisingly, the railway permits extensive public access to their locomotive shed at Loughborough. This provided us with the opportunity to see much of the railway’s varied locomotive fleet, rather than being limited to the ones in service. The size of these impressive machines can really be appreciated when viewed up-close at ground level rather than from a station platform.

A close look at the chains and cables coming from under Loughborough signal box on the Great Central Railway
Ye Olde Signalling Cables: chains and wires coming out of Loughborough signal box.
Also on show was an array of chains and cables emanating from Loughborough signal box. The building itself is a fine example and, like many others across the UK railway network, puts the ‘re-locatable equipment buildings’ used for modern signalling equipment to shame aesthetically. ‘Re-locatable equipment building’, by the way, I believe is just a posh way of saying ‘portacabin’. As per usual, clicking the photograph will take you to my Flickr page where you will find a shot of the signal box along with other photographs from the holiday. At the time of posting, the album is not complete, there are still more photographs to upload from this trip.

Class 47 diesel locomotive 'Sparrowhawk' on the Great Central Railway.
Shiny Sparrowhawk: class 47 diesel locomotive outside the shed on the Great Central Railway.
Once again, we then had to hurry to catch a train, this time the 13:58 East Midlands Trains service from the other Loughborough station. This meant I did not have much time for looking around the small museum at the other end of the heritage railway’s platform and, to my annoyance, we forgot to ask the question that had in part brought us here. That question was whether the ‘only mainline heritage railway in Britain’ ever ran trains above the normal low speeds with members of the public on-board. I have read that the line is permitted to run faster, up to 75mph for testing. They also run demonstration travelling post office trains at above the normal heritage railway speed limit of 25mph during gala events. What I do not know is whether those gala events also include the operation of passenger trains at speeds greater than 25mph.

Unfortunately, we felt we did not have time to double back and ask the question, so carried on our walk to East Midlands Trains’ Loughborough station. I think we arrived with about 10 minutes to spare, so I was able to obtain some photographs of the station with the Brush Traction works in the background. With one heritage mainline, the Great Central, behind us we switched to another when we boarded Diesel Multiple Unit 222015 which was bound for Nottingham. The class 222 units are only middle-aged, yet represent how very outdated the Midland Main Line is. In 1981 British Rail recommended a programme of electrification which prioritised electrification of the Midland Main Line, plus the Birmingham to Derby and Leicester routes, ahead of the East Coast Main Line north of Newcastle. 36 years later, diesel trains built at the time are becoming life-expired and electrification north of Kettering on the Midland Main Line (MML) is once-again without a funding commitment from the government.

Loughborough Midland railway station, seen from the car park, with the Brush Traction works behind
Loughborough Midland: the East Midlands Trains station in Loughborough, with the Brush Traction works behind.

Meanwhile the Great Central Railway is constructing a new bridge over the Midland Main Line in Loughborough, which will reconnect the line with another stretch of the Great Central Main Line which has also reopened as a heritage railway. According to a notice on the Leicester North to Loughborough line, the original Great Central Railway bridge over the MML was demolished to make room for electrification of the MML. Electrification that still has not happened; a modern railway this is not.

East Midlands Trains' 156415 at Beeston station
Break At Beeston Over: our train to Matlock arrives
We left the Meridian at Beeston to await the 14:25 service to Matlock, which was formed of ‘Super Sprinter’ 156415. The run past Attenborough and back to the double triangular junctions south of Long Eaton offered tantalising views of pleasant-looking lakeside walks, primarily in Attenborough Nature Reserve, before the train rounded the north side of the southern triangle and joined the MML’s western branch towards Derby. Staying on-board, we were taken up into the very different terrain of the Peak District.

Footbridge to disused platform with surviving building at Cromford station
Cromford Cottage: attractive building, with footbridge, at Cromford station
Now merely a branch line, the Matlock route was once part of the now-severed main line from Derby to Manchester. One of the railway guidebooks I was carrying told us to look out for the curious mix of architecture found at some of the stations on the branch, and I managed a photograph of one station buildings through the train window.

Matlock railway station with an East Midlands Trains class 156 in the platform
End Of The Line: the Super Sprinter that look us to Matlock rests before its return journey.
It is possible to travel a little further than Matlock by changing for ‘Peak Rail’, another heritage line, which operates almost as far as the Peak District National Park. Neither that nor the East Midlands Trains service actually cross that boundary however. My plans did not include a ride on Peak Rail, so after I few photos of Matlock station had been taken I re-boarded the Super Sprinter to head back down the Matlock branch.

This post terminates here, but the day was not quite over. In a fortnight’s time, I hope to bring you a report on the following day’s travel. The story of Tuesday’s events, following our departure from Matlock, will be continued next week if possible.

Back To The Future

My record of my August 2017 Midlands rail adventure continues (you can catch up on the previous instalment, “Moor, Please”, here).

Worksop railway station buildings and footbridge, with a class 156 train
‘Our’ East Midlands Trains ‘Robin Hood Line’ service after arrival at Worksop station
With the weekend over, the focus returned to the modern railway. The morning of Monday 14th August saw us take the 09:48 from Leicester to Nottingham on ‘Meridian’ unit number 222015. There we changed on the ‘Robin Hood Line’ to Worksop, a route that closed to passengers in the 1960s. This fact we found rather surprising since one of the places served, Mansfield, is a rather large town. According to Wikipedia it was then probably the largest town in Britain without a station, but now has two. Both Mansfield (town) station and Mansfield Woodhouse also seem to have retained their original station buildings, at least in part, although the structure at the latter is rather odd. It looks more like an engine shed than a station building, apparently having no indoor ticket office or waiting room area. I wonder if it really is a survivor of the original railway or an unusually well-designed modern replacement dating from the line’s phased reopening in the 1990s. The service we used was the 10:26 from Nottingham, with 156411 in charge.

Despite the line’s marketing name recalling the legends of Sherwood Forest, the trees we saw (which were rather more plentiful than expected from a look at the route on Google Earth) did not appear to belong to any form of ancient woodland. I don’t suppose much true ancient woodland still exists in the area.

East Midlands Trains diesel multiple unit number 156411 at Worksop railway station
Robin Hood Terminus: ‘our’ class 156 stands at Worksop waiting to return to Nottingham.
The ‘Robin Hood Line’ was a bit of a detour on-route to the main objective of the day, to take a photograph of a class 399 unit and investigate the route they will be used on. The class 399s are tram-train units for the ‘Sheffield Supertram’ system and were due to be added to the Supertram fleet later in 2017. Thus, after arrival at Worksop we turned west, boarding the next Sheffield-bound service. This route is operated by Northern, rather than East Midlands Trains, and I wondered what rolling stock they would use on it. The answer, it turned out, was Pacers. Ours was 142028, due off Worksop at 12:15 and bound for Adwick (reversing at Sheffield). The unit was still fitted with bench seats similar to those in old buses but in 2+3 configuration (wider benches on one side of the aisle).

Not far out of Worksop, and if I recall correctly also visible from the Robin Hood Line, was a large quantity of wagons. These I believe were large coal hoppers and I surmised that they were redundant following the decline in coal traffic. My grandmother suggested that somebody should try to find a way of reusing them. I think some redundant coal hoppers have been modified with the addition of covers to allow the transport of biomass for burning in power stations, but since we were travelling on a Pacer and these large coal hoppers have bogies my idea was to use the under-frames to create ‘Bogie Pacers’. The Pacers are near life-expired anyway though and the chances of the vehicle lengths being the same are quite slim, so I doubt that is a sensible idea.

Three Arriva Northern Pacer diesel multiple units in Sheffield station
Pacer Central: A line-up of Pacer units in Sheffield station
While the class 399s will initially just be working ordinary tram services on the current Supertram network, the reason for their existence is a plan to extend Supertram services over Network Rail tracks through Rotherham Central station. Ordinary trams are not permitted to share tracks with conventional heavy-rail trains, hence the class 399 ‘tram-trains’ which can mix with both. On the approach to Sheffield, our Pacer passed the Supertram depot where, to my dismay, I counted at least five class 399s. Knowing the total fleet was only 6-8 units (having now checked Wikipedia, I see the planned fleet size is 7 units) I feared none might be in use that day. Sticking to the plan, we stayed on the Pacer while it reversed in Sheffield station and headed out, through Rotherham Central, to Swinton. Here we left the train, it having rejoined the Sheffield – Doncaster route (Rotherham Central is on a separate short line).

Footbridge and platform canopies inside Sheffield station
Steely Station: the colour scheme of the platform canopies at Sheffield evokes the city’s steel-making heritage
We then headed back into Sheffield, boarding the slightly delayed 13:19 service. This was bound for Lincoln and, according to Real Time Trains, had come from Scunthorpe. Scunthorpe to Lincoln via Sheffield; a strange route and a long way to go on a Pacer. Our unit was another bench-seated one, 142023. At Rotherham Central, where I had noted on the way up that works to build the low platforms for the class 399s had apparently barely started, I wondered how they would get the Overhead Line Equipment (OHLE) to power the trams through the station. It looked as though the station had recently been rebuilt without consideration of tram-train scheme, although Wikipedia tells me the current buildings date from February 2012 as a result of a project started in 2010 (so perhaps before the tram-train plan). Outside the station, a number of the masts to support the overhead line were in place on the section to be used for the tram-train service, but no wires as yet.

A view of Sheffield cathedral with the public square in front of it
Cathedral Square: public open space outside Sheffield cathedral, part of which is visible on the left.
Back at Sheffield station, the dilemma of how to find and photograph a class 399 came to the fore. Having possibly seen the entire fleet in the depot my first thought was to try and get there, but down which of the tram routes that converge on the city centre was it? And would it be too far to walk? We started following one line in the direction we had come on the train until we came to the junction where the lines meet.

Class 399 'tram-train' unit on the Sheffield Supertram network outside the city's cathedral
Spotting Success: tram-train 399201 appears, approaching the Cathedral tram stop in Sheffield city centre.
At this point I decided that even if we could reach the depot the fencing around it might prevent photography. We therefore reverted to my original plan to walk alongside the tram line to the cathedral, following a section that all the routes use according to the network map I’d found online. If a class 399 was in service, it would have to pass us. I spotted a poster on one of the tram stops that explained that class 399s weren’t yet in service, but might be in use for driving training. We waited outside the cathedral for a while and thankfully it turned out one was out and about. Photos taken: mission accomplished.

A Sheffield tram in blue & cream livery
Standout Supertram: a Sheffield tram in blue & cream livery heads into the city centre.
On our way to the cathedral, I had decided that all the trams carried the same livery of Stagecoach blue, with the class 399s having black fronts and the other trams a red front. By the time we had finished at the cathedral and walked back to the station however, we had seen at least one with a blue front and one in an interesting blue and cream livery.

Water features in Sheffield with the railway station in the middle distance
Water features outside Sheffield station
Sheffield station retains well-designed ‘railway age’ buildings and canopies, the latter being an interesting grey colour. Grey, interesting? In this case yes, because it results in a steel-like finish that is rather fitting given Sheffield’s history. That history is also reflected in one of the water features just outside the station.

Interior of class 158 diesel multiple unit
Northern Quality: interior of ‘our’ class 158
I had a number of options for routes back to Nottingham and thence to Leicester. In the end, after grabbing some footage for a short video about electrification cancellations, the one chosen was the 16:05 to Nottingham via Chesterfield. Northern provided a very different standard of train for this run. Almost making up for the earlier Pacers, 158794 turned up with some really nice seats and the Regional Railways original two-tone blue stripes on the luggage racks. The only issue with the interior was the legroom in the airline-style seats; not quite enough for comfort on a long journey (not that ours was particularly long on this occasion).

Two diesel multiple unit trains in Nottingham railway station
Investment (in electrification) Required: Nottingham station with two diesel multiple units present (an XC Turbostar and an EMT Meridian unit, probably the one named ‘Invest In Nottingham’.
Nottingham, along with Sheffield and Swansea, has recently suffered the indignity of having its promised electrification cancelled. With footage of Sheffield in the camera and Swansea, as railways go, practically on my doorstep Nottingham was the obvious next target. I might have left it a day or two and made a special trip up to Nottingham later in the holiday, but fate intervened. As I walked along the platforms, I noticed that the class 222 due to depart in a few minutes was named ‘Invest In Nottingham’. You couldn’t have made it up; it seemed it was just meant to be, so I filmed its departure. That did mean a wait of nearly half an hour for the next London-bound service, the 17:32, but since that train was already in the platform I wasn’t bothered.

Interior of mark 3 coach at Nottingham station, showing imperfect alignment of table bay with window
Window Whoopsy: interior of mark 3 at Nottingham station, showing imperfect alignment of table bay with window
Taking the 17:32 also meant I got my first ride on an East Midlands Trains IC125 set. 43044 led us to Leicester with 43066 on the rear. The seats were the original British Rail ones with the slightly awkward fixed armrests. That wasn’t the only shortcoming either; assuming the interior layout is unchanged I’m not entirely impressed with BR’s efforts. Despite the mark 3 coaches having reasonably large windows, some of the table bays managed to offer an obstructed view to half their occupants.

Hilltop building, seen from a train leaving Nottingham station
Nottingham Skyline: the large building on the hill-top, seen through the train window.
The seats themselves were a reasonable shape (the armrest problem aside) and the seat-base cushions were ok, but the seat-back was hard. Unlike on the Great Western, where first class has been reduced to 1.5 coaches out of 8 the EMT sets seem to have 2.5 coaches of first class. As we left Nottingham, I managed a slightly blurry photo of an unidentified large building on a hill top that had caught my eye previously.

Moor, Please

This is the third instalment of my Midlands rail adventure write-up, following on from Rutland Ramblings.

Two arched spans of Leicester station's historic frontage
No Chance: ‘Departure’ arches at Leicester station (photo taken later in the week).
Planning for Sunday 13th August was frustrated by a terrible timetable. As part of my holiday I wanted to travel over the Erewash Valley Line, the direct route from East Midlands Parkway to Chesterfield passing Toton TMD (Traction Maintenance Depot). Prior to the trip, I had established that the route had hardly any passenger services, but on Sundays a 10:08 service from Nottingham was booked to use part of the route, including passing the TMD. I had decided to aim for that service (and then going from Chesterfield to Birmingham to see the Shakespeare Express) but was horrified to discover that there were no northbound services from Leicester before 10am on a Sunday.

Thus thwarted, I was forced to abandon the idea of riding the Erewash Valley Line. We therefore reverted to our Heart Of England (3-in-7 days) Rover tickets earlier than planned and went directly to Birmingham New Street on the 10:22 from Leicester (CrossCountry’s 170101). With very little rail mileage the previous day (all of which was using the ‘East Midlands Rover’), I was keen to make the most of the rover and so added a return trip from Birmingham to Redditch which also helped fill the time that would have been spent on the trip up to Chesterfield. The third day of the ‘Heart Of England’ rover would be used later in the week for our return journey to Wales.

Exterior of the main station building at Birmingham Moor Street
Sight Of Relief: Birmingham Moor Street station after we had found our way to it from New Street
For the Redditch trip, we travelled on London Midland’s 323202 which was coupled to a second class 323 to form a longer train on the 11:45 from Birmingham. We did not note down the departure time from Redditch (which was 12:27) on the day’s itinerary, so to avoid the risk of being left behind I didn’t even step onto the platform there to take a look at the station. Back at Birmingham New Street I was very pleased to discover that there were open toilets (as opposed to ones behind a pay barrier as some other large stations managed by Network Rail have). This forced me to somewhat adjust my opinion of the station, which I had previously considered a hell-hole to be avoided like the plague. We then headed out of the station in search of Birmingham Moor Street, somewhere I’ve wanted to see more of ever since my first visit, which was rather brief.

Castle class 4-6-0 steam locomotive number 5043
Steaming Into Birmingham: 5043 arriving at Moor Street
On the way between the stations we took a wrong turn but happily still managed to find Birmingham’s attractive GWR station with ample time for a look round. 5043 ‘Earl of Mount Edgcumbe’, heading north, then brought ‘The Shakespeare Express’ into the station at around 13:36 and off into the tunnel to Birmingham Snow Hill.

Water tower on the platform at Birmingham Moor Street station
Supplies For Steam: water tower at Birmingham Moor Street
The station still has a water tower and water crane, though I’m not sure if they’re connected together so using it as a water stop for the ‘Shakespeare Express’ might not be possible. The station looks quite authentic but on closer inspection I was dubious about some of the colours used; rather than just ‘light stone’ and ‘dark stone’ there seemed to be at least three shades in use. There was also a baby changing facility, which my grandmother informed me the railways didn’t have in the old days. The signage for it though did not look at all out of place, it being in the same white-on-black style as the rest. It really is a very good-looking station.

Under the station roof at Birmingham Moor Street
Inside Moor Street: the open space behind the buffer stops for the bay platforms

Castle class steam locomotive tender-first at Birmingham Moor Street
Back Through: The Earl of Mount Edgcumbe heads tender-first towards Stratford-Upon-Avon
5043 then returned, just after 14:00, now running tender-first towards Stratford-upon-Avon. I was disappointed that the Hall class locomotive originally advertised for the Shakespeare expresses had not been reinstated, but at least that allowed me to drop the idea of taking a bus to capture it away from a station. Also, assuming the Hall would have been tender-first southbound as the Castle was, I wouldn’t have been able to get the photograph I wanted of it at Moor Street anyway.

Non-standard London Midland station name-board with gold background at Stratford-Upon-Avon
Golden Gaffe: unattractive golden sign at Stratford
At 14:30 we set off in pursuit of the Castle-hauled train on a service formed of 172212 and 172221. Stratford-upon-Avon station is sadly not the picturesque sight that Birmingham Moor Street is. It does retain a traditional station building, complete with canopy, and what looks like a GWR footbridge. The latter however is obscured on one side by a modern footbridge in a horrible pink colour and some of the station name-boards have a rather odd-looking golden background (rather than London Midland’s normal black).

Exterior of a building with visible timbers in Stratford-Upon-Avon
A Sample Of Stratford: one of the many buildings with visible timbers in Stratford-Upon-Avon
The town however has quite a selection of attractive old-looking buildings, although by the time we had reached the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre my grandmother was so fed up of the crowds of other tourists that we did not continue to find their other theatre. Instead we headed back towards the station on back streets that, thankfully, most of the other visitors hadn’t noticed.

Model railway in Stratford-Upon-Avon
Nearly Missed Model: My brief glimpse of the model railway
The railway exhibition we had seen advertised on the way down to the theatre was closing when we passed it on the way back, but they did let us in for a quick look at one of their model railways. We made it back to the station in time to see ‘Earl of Mount Edgcumbe’ making a disgraceful departure from Stratford-upon-Avon. Clouds of filthy black smoke were emitted and barely any acceleration achieved; I think it even slipped a little soon after finally making it passed the end of the platform I was standing on.

Class 172 Turbostar unit 172334 at Stratford-Upon-Avon
Time To Turbo(star): 172334 waits to whisk us away from Stratford-Upon-Avon station
Our train back to Birmingham was shorter that the one we had arrived on, a single 3-car class 172 unit instead of a four carriage formation. Our 3-car unit was 172334, forming the 16:29 departure from Stratford-upon-Avon. Rather than alight at Birmingham however we stayed on-board through to Smethwick Galton Bridge.

The canal at Smethwick Galton Bridge, seen from above
Calm On The Canal: looking down at the water from Smethwick Galton Bridge station
Unfortunately the ‘Galton Bridge’ itself (which I think takes a road over the canal below) could not be easily photographed owing to the sides of the railway bridge that the Snow Hill line platforms are located on. We then returned to Birmingham Moor Street on the 17:46 service (172341) and managed to find our way back to New Street without the detour we had made earlier. Finally, 170637 took us back to Leicester. On this leg, as on the outward run, we were puzzled by a grand building not far from a reservoir. A quick survey on Google Earth as a write this has revealed that this was probably Whitacre Water Works, just east of Water Orton.

The Time Train?

Network Rail buildings at Whitland station
Re-Structuring: new Network Rail buildings at Whitland
Time waits for no man, and time machines haven’t been invented yet. Nevertheless, it seems history can repeat itself. I’ve spent most Saturdays over the past few summers collecting footage for a video or two I want to make about the Pembroke Coast Express. The modern Pembroke Coast Express isn’t too much trouble to film, but to get footage of a steam-hauled one? A steam railtour to Pembroke Dock has run in previous years, but that was before I discovered they existed. This year’s run (2017) was cancelled, but even had it appeared GWR motive power was unlikely to be provided. There was nothing for it; I would just have to cheat and find a suitable GWR locomotive in use elsewhere on the network. Just such an event was scheduled for Saturday 12th August, in Melton Mowbray of all places, along with the Shakespeare Express (Birmingham – Stratford-upon-Avon) on most Sundays throughout the summer so I booked a holiday to fit around these. That holiday started on Friday 11th August, and I started ‘time travelling’ earlier than expected.

Continue reading The Time Train?

Clear Direction

First Cymru bus in Haverfordwest
Time Of Change: A photo from autumn last year of a bus working one of the services affected by today’s new regime
Today, 3rd April 2017, a number of bus service changes are taking place in Pembrokeshire. Actually, First Cymru’s new timetable booklet is dated as running from 2nd April (yesterday), but since the Sunday bus network is a woeful ‘nothing at all’ the effective date is today. When this post is published however, I will not be in Wales. Today, I’m returning from Norwich on one of my railway exploration holidays, so I planned ahead. On Friday 24th March, it happened that my father wasn’t coming into work so I went by bus. With the new timetable coming up, I decided to take a camera to get pictures for this post; and a story developed.

The first leg of my journey was uneventful. I reached Haverfordwest as planned and waited for my next bus, which I photographed; the 349 service to Monkton, calling at Picton Place, County Library, Dew Street, Horsefair (Tesco), Merlin’s Bridge, Johnston, Honeyborough Roundabout, Cleddau Bridge, Pembroke Dock, Pembroke and Monkton. To me, this was the ‘349b’ service, although First referred to it simply as ‘349’. The first five places listed were reached without mishap, but by the time we reached Johnston an alarm had sounded on the bus. The driver pulled over and cut the engine; after a short wait he restarted it and we continued. Not for long though; the alarm soon returned and we were parked in a lay-by-type bus stop in Johnston.

Failed First Cymru bus in Johnston
Broken Down: the failed 349(b) in Johnston
The driver phoned ‘the engineer’, stating that the alarm had been accompanied by loss-of-power. We waited until the engineer turned up; I was hoping they would send a replacement bus (as Richards Bros have done once or twice when I’ve been on one of their services that suffers a breakdown) but it was just a van. Although an annoying delay to my journey, which made me even later for work (as I pointed out to a fellow passenger who asked, I’m ‘late’ for work anyway whenever I go by bus), the failure gave me the opportunity to collect additional photographs which I would have otherwise been unable to obtain, and are preferable to the rather dull picture I took back at Haverfordwest bus station.

First Cymru bus in Johnston
The real 349: the Tenby bus approaches our failed Monkton one
With no replacement bus provided, we were instead forced to wait for the next service, due to leave Haverfordwest half-an-hour behind our failed bus. We had already spent almost that long stationary, so it wasn’t long before the second bus arrived; the ‘349’ to Tenby. To me, this was the ‘349a’. The driver from the failed bus told the other driver that nobody was trying to get to Monkton, which the ‘349a’ does not serve; and off we went leaving the engineer, the stricken bus and its driver behind. It wouldn’t be the last we saw of them.

Milford Haven from the bus at Neyland
Unexpected View: the Cleddau estuary seen from the bus at Neyland during the detour
The reason I have my own ‘349a’ and ‘349b’ designations for these services will now become clear (although, if you’ve read my 3-part 2016 series on bus route numbers, you might guess where I’m going with this). It is also why I had hoped a spare bus would be found. At the Honeyborough roundabout, our ‘349a’ turned right, rather than heading straight-on to the bus stop as the ‘349b’ would have done. These are clearly different routes, which is not what First (by calling both ‘349’) would have had you believe. The right turn takes the 349(a) into Neyland, which is not served by the Haverfordwest-Monkton service. After looping round Neyland, we came to the Honeyborough roundabout again; this time heading out to the bus stop. Lo-and-behold, sitting there was our errant ‘349b’, with engineer’s van. By not going via Neyland, it had overtaken us but had obviously failed again so I was no later into work than if I had stayed with it.

Pembrokeshire County Council bus service change of operator notice
Reassurance: Pembrokeshire County Council notice on our failed bus, stating that the 381 service will continue
With the story (almost) complete, I finally get to the news. Haverfordwest bus station is to see a reduction in services, with outward services to Milford Haven (302), Johnston (the Tenby and Monkton services discussed above) running direct from Withybush Hospital to Picton Place (Iceland), missing out the bus station. The bus station is still served in the other direction, heading towards Withybush Hospital, with the Monkton services extended there rather than terminating at the bus station. First’s information might lead some to believe that Pembrokeshire is suffering a major bus cut, since they describe the 381 service (Haverfordwest-Tenby via Narberth and Kilgetty) as being ‘cancelled’, with the last day of operation being Friday 31st March. In reality, that service has been taken over by Taf Valley Coaches, as the Pembrokeshire County Council notice on the First buses I took in the story states.

First Cymru bus poster
Service changes: First’s poster on our failed bus
The headline however is that, from today, I will no longer have to call the two ‘349’ routes ‘a’ and ‘b’, because the direct Monkton service will now be known as the 348, while the original 349 (via Neyland to Tenby) remains the 349. A little victory for me (I probably can’t claim any credit for it, but it feels good anyway); now how about bringing back the 550, 50 and 412 designations and sorting out that colossal amalgamation which is the TrawsCymru T5?

Going back to the story, given the huge delay to the ‘349b’ service I was concerned that the service might not recover punctuality all day, jeopardising my ‘connection’ on the return journey. Somehow (perhaps by cancelling a trip?) it seems First did get the ‘349b’ running on-time again (or reasonably close to it), because my journey home went smoothly.

Beyond World’s End?

The previous instalment of this travel-report series concluded after leaving Oxford on Tuesday 22nd March 2016. This post brings the story of our ‘short holiday’ to its end with an account of the last day of the trip, Wednesday 23rd March.

Sika deer in Woburn Abbey's deer park
I’ve Seen The Sika: Sika Deer In Woburn Abbey’s Deer Park
In the morning, after my brother had been dropped off, the three of us (my mother and grandmother, plus myself) headed over to Woburn Abbey. While their safari park is a segregated tourist attraction, a public road runs through part of Woburn’s deer park. This had been an interesting feature of many of our journeys between our accommodation and the various places we had visited, and we drove through another part of it on route to the Woburn Abbey car park.
Oriental-style structure on rocky outcrop across a pond in Woburn Abbey Gardens
Spirit Of The East: Oriental Architecture In Woburn Abbey Gardens
Together we took a quick look around the Woburn gardens which, slightly unusually, featured a number of structures of oriental architecture (some of which I thought worked aesthetically). I then returned to the car and sat listening to music while my elders visited the house itself.

My brother wasn’t doing a full day, so our next move was to go and collect him, before heading into the centre of Milton Keynes for the first time. We didn’t like what we found; the place was all very grey and dreary. Long, straight, dual carriageways flanked by car parking with a slightly shabby shopping centre.

Photo by Tom Parnell of Silbury Boulevard in Milton Keynes
Post-Apocalyptic: Silbury Boulevard, Milton Keynes (photo by Tom Parnell).
The overall impression of the place was ‘post-apocalyptic’. I’m not kidding, something about it reminded me of the scenes set in Pripyat in the game “Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare”; Pripyat being the city that was abandoned due to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.

Photo by Tom Parnell of Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes
Depressing View: Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes (photo by Tom Parnell)
Being me, I blame the car. Milton Keynes appears to have been designed around it; the grid of roads (many being dual-carriageways), the acres of asphalt/concrete; all designed to support a population of motorists. At the time of writing, the Wikipedia article on Milton Keynes states that the central area was not designed as a traditional town centre. Instead, it is like out-of-town shopping centres (a “car-culture” idea, probably impractical to use on foot) but in the centre of town. Even ‘Milton Keynes Central’ railway station is on the edge of the central area, the wrong side of one of the dual carriageways, rather than dead-centre. Maybe there was a good reason for that; but I don’t know what that might be. Just like motorways, Milton Keynes itself (what we saw of it, at any rate) is characterless, uninspiring and depressing. Although there is some greenery, even this is standardised and fails to prevent the place looking artificial and near-lifeless (again, just like motorways and most dual-carriageways).

Photo by Stephen McKay of Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes
Beyond World’s End? Another view of Milton Keynes’ Midsummer Boulevard (photo by Stephen McKay)
Almost needless to say, we didn’t stay long. But what was the best way home? I’m writing this some time after the event, so my memory is hazy, but I think I directed us along the A421 and A4421 to Bicester, then the A41 and M40 to avoid the Oxford ring road, then off the M40 at junction 8a onto the A40 briefly then the A329, B4015 and A415 to Abingdon where my plan unravelled. The traffic was terrible and it took us some time to get through the town. My mother, in the driver’s seat, was therefore rather displeased with my navigating (I think I may have had an alternative in mind, and may have even voiced it, but since that was using minor roads I doubt that would have gone down well either). Anyway, we eventually made it to the A34 and headed south towards the M4. On the way, I noticed that one of the minor roads alongside the A34 led to a place called “World’s End”, we drove right past it. This was the inspiration for the title of this post; very appropriate given that parts of our trip had been something of a culture-shock. I’m opposed to the proposed second M4 around Newport, and various other bypass projects, on the grounds that creating more space for more cars encourages even more car use, leading to increased pollution and congestion (leading to more tarmac and so on in a vicious circle). But having seen Milton Keynes, I wondered if it is already too late; have we already spiralled beyond the point where the car addiction is fatal to life on this good Earth?

Returning to the journey, having joined the M4 at Newbury and travelled some distance along it, we had to turn off the motorway for fuel (at junction 18, I think), having just missed a service station. The road to Pennsylvania was “chock-a-block” with traffic so we headed in the opposite direction, hoping that the petrol station I could see on the map would be open; it was. It was on this little detour off the motorway that Mum cheered, having seen some cows in a field (she was suffering from ‘withdrawal symptoms’ caused by all the concrete and arable farming). Once back on the motorway, we made our familiar drive home along the motorway and A48 to Carmarthen and then on into the land of the living and home. What a relief; these few days were a real eye-opener for me.

Photograph of N.W. Wales mountains from a Cambrian Coast train
Beautiful West Wales: a view from the Cambrian Coast Line between Dovey Junction to Pwllheli.
So, if you want to escape the post-apocalyptic concrete wasteland of southern England on your next holiday come to the west of Wales; but leave your car at home, we don’t want our country ruined in the same way. Use our ‘delightful’ bus services.

Happy New Year (this post was scheduled to appear in the last minute of 2016, so by the time you read this it is probably 2017).

Saved By The WiFi

We Wish You A Merry Christmas… There hasn’t been much to be merry about recently, so to avoid another rant I’ll put out a mini travel report with a happy ending.

Twenty days ago (5th December 2016), I left work in a hurry. I had just realised what the time was; I normally leave a few minutes sooner if I’m aiming for the bus I was intending to catch that evening. Thanks to quite a bit of running, and the bus being slightly late, I caught it.

TrawsCambria bus at Aberaeron with Christmas lights in the background
One from the archives: I couldn’t find a photograph relevant to the story, so picked one of a TrawsCambria bus with Christmas lights in the background
Later in my journey, while changing bus, I got out my mobile in order to phone home and arrange my lift from the bus stop. It wouldn’t turn on; it would light up and make the right (horrible) start-up noises, but then the screen would be blank. On about the third attempt I noticed that, just before it went blank, it would say ‘recharge battery’ or something to that effect.

Oh blast, I thought; either I had forgotten to turn the thing off last time I used it or it had turned itself on without me realising (it has a habit of doing that, if I lean on something in the wrong place the power button can be ‘pressed’, for this reason I try to remember to leave it at home if going to the theatre/cinema). Given the time of year, it would be too dark to walk home from the bus stop (had this happened in the summer, I’d probably have walked).

Fortunately, I had recently replaced the battery on my laptop with one that works, so it had some charge. That, in theory, would give me the means to send an e-mail in the hope of arranging my pickup; but would I be able to connect to the internet? My next bus was a TrawsCymru T5 service; TrawsCymru services are supposed to have WiFi, I could be in luck. But would the vehicle be one of the TrawsCymru fleet, or a stand-in due to a failure? Even if the booked bus arrived, would the WiFi be working?

Thankfully, the bus that turned up was one of the WiFi equipped TrawsCymru branded ones. Once seated, I nervously tried to connect; and BINGO it worked. I managed to get a message through and somebody was there to collect me, all thanks to TrawsCymru’s WiFi. There’s the happy ending. If you want to leave it on a happy note, don’t read the following paragraph.

Now what if my laptop battery had been flat too? Some of the TrawsCymru vehicles have power sockets, but most don’t and even the ones that do have very few (and I don’t think they work, although it’s years since I last tried one).

Varsity Ventures

The M4 motorway at Port Talbot
M4 Port Talbot (photograph by Kevin Corcoran)
After a pleasant afternoon watching, and riding on, trains, my ‘short holiday’ started to go downhill. I’m picking up the story where I left off, in a car on the M4, having been met by family members at Port Talbot. There’s no doubt about it, motorways are very dull ribbons of dreary tarmac (and/or concrete), apparently without exception. Actually, that’s a good question, can anyone think of an exception? We did of course leave the motorway eventually, but not until after stopping for dinner. Thus we were in darkness as we headed up the A420, negotiated the Oxford ring road and the A418 past Aylesbury and onto the A505. Unfortunately, if there’s any travel more boring than miles of motorway then it is probably night-time motoring. Of course family chat and, occasionally, the radio can partly relieve the monotony, and so can navigation, but these don’t really make up for not being able to see what you’re passing. I think we were all relieved when we finally arrived at our booked accommodation, after crossing the A5 and twice passing the M1. No, I didn’t get us lost, the written directions used for the last few miles to our destination were written as though we were coming up the M1 from London and I didn’t want to risk finding my own route with just a road atlas (I might have tried it if I had been equipped with an Ordnance Survey Landranger map).

While helping to keep me sane, navigating was perhaps also a little stressful; there’s often an argument between at least two occupants of the car over the best route. On this occasion though, there was at least general agreement that the motorway network didn’t really suit our journey, much like the rail network it radiates out from London and I don’t think any of us fancied the M25.

Second Severn Motorway Bridge
Into England (public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Anyway, so why are we here, in self-catering accommodation not far from the M1? Why would anyone want to come here? Although the accommodation was of a reasonable standard, the noise of the motorway could be heard if you stood outside and my mother wondered why somebody would come on holiday here. Our reason was that my brother had educational commitments in Milton Keynes, and the rest of us were just taking advantage of the trip to see a few things. I had a stab at answering Mum’s question by taking quick look at the map, the obvious tourist attractions were Woburn Abbey and its Safari Park. Apparently, none of us were interested in the latter, but the Abbey was one reason for my elder’s interest in the visit. Another of their reasons, and one I’d come along for too (though not the main reason) was Bletchley Park.

The next day, after dropping my brother off, we drove down towards Didcot to one of the other attractions which had drawn me, ‘Pendon Museum’. This ‘museum’ features three model railways, one a very early example of the craft. The other two are much more recent, at least one is still under construction, and very impressive with detail extending to the interior of buildings and a birdwatcher observing a bird of prey. These model various parts of the steam-era Great Western Railway, although they are intended to capture a snapshot of buildings and scenery typical of the areas concerned rather than being models of a particular location (the buildings in the model village don’t all belong to the same real-world village). We decided the Oxford ring road (with its many roundabouts) was no more appealing in daylight than it had been at night, so went back to Bicester via a different route (which involved the M40).

Bletchley Park introduction exhibit entrance
Bletchley Park introduction entrance. Image from ‘The Hub’ (fit-out contractor) website.
On the third day (Monday), we made the much shorter journey to Bletchley Park. We had thought we may move on to somewhere else afterwards, but our visit took us through until it was time to collect my brother again. We didn’t even visit the adjacent national museum of computing, which contains more of the code-breaking machines created on the site, although it wasn’t fully open that day anyway. Interestingly, the entrance to Bletchley Park’s introductory exhibit had a railway theme. The word ‘entrance’ was in white text on a midland-red background, while the doorways beneath it had imitation railway-carriage slam-doors. Also present was a four-way ‘fingerpost’ sign, also in midland-red, pointing to ‘platform 1 for Oxford, platform 2 for Cambridge, platform 3 for Glasgow and platform 4 for London. I doubt such a sign actually would have existed on a station, but railways from Bletchley to the four places in question certainly did exist.

Bletchley Park Cambridge-Oxford sign, photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Varsity fingerpost, Bletchley Park. Photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Sadly, you cannot currently make a reasonably direct journey from Milton Keynes to Oxford by rail today, because the central section of the Oxford-Cambridge ‘Varsity Line’ has been closed since 1967; so when we headed off to visit Oxford on the fourth day we couldn’t leave the car in Milton Keynes with my brother. The line which would have taken you to Cambridge still exists as far as Bedford, but beyond that it is also gone.

Chiltern Railways service at Oxford Parkway station
Stopping short of Oxford: Chiltern Railways service waiting to London at Oxford Parkway
One of the many Milton Keynes roundabouts we traversed on our excursions in the Oxford direction was called, I kid you not, ‘Bottledump Roundabout’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was liberally scatted with discarded plastic bottles, presumably thrown out of passing cars. Whether the bottles were there first and this inspired the name or vice-versa I do not know. The railway between Bletchley and Oxford is now to be reinstated, but we were several years early. So, to avoid the Oxford traffic, we parked at ‘Bicester Village’ station, which until the recent complete rebuild was ‘Bicester Town’. Previously, ‘Bicester Town’ was served by a shuttle to Oxford, but now Chiltern Railways have had a new section of track built to allow services from London Marylebone to Oxford, running through ‘Bicester Village’ station. This project wasn’t complete either, enhancements work was still taking place near Oxford so we had to transfer to a bus for the final leg into Oxford from Oxford Parkway station.

Of course, it is not only Chiltern who have significant changes planned on their part of the network. The electrification work of parts of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) will see Intercity Express Programme (IEP) class 800 bi-mode trains introduced from next year (2017). Thus we get to my principle reason for coming on this trip; the five class 180s currently with the franchise will be moved to Grand Central, probably by the end of 2017, as the 800s arrive. Having never been on a 180, I was keen to get a ride on one to compare them with the related class 175 units we have in Wales while I had the chance.

Class 180 number 180108 at Oxford Railway Station
180108 arrives at Oxford to take me to Kingham
I left my elders and boarded my first 180, 180108 on a Cotswolds line service to Kingham. From there, I returned to Oxford on another class 180. I was pleased to discover that the interior of standard class did indeed have much in common with the class 175s, with ample legroom even in airline-style seating. Rather strangely however, especially on a line with short platforms like the Cotswolds line, the first-class carriage on the 180s (class 175s are standard-class only) was not one of the driving vehicles at the ends. Instead, one standard-class coach was isolated on its own at one end, with the adjacent coach being the first-class one. Given that I’ve read standard-class ticket-holders are not even allowed to stand in the vestibules of first class coaches on Intercity 125s, I wonder what happens if somebody in the isolated standard class coach wants to alight at a short platform where that carriage is off the end of the platform. One of the four standard class carriages on the 180, perhaps the isolated one, also seemed to have fewer bays of four around tables than the others. Another feature that the class 175s lack but can be found on a 180 is the mini-buffet/cafe. This is really quite small, with just one of the main external windows blanked out by it, though it didn’t appear to be open. I’m not sure if First Great Western bother with it anymore.

Old building in Oxford
One Of The Old Ones: building in Oxford
Back in Oxford, I rejoined my mother and grandmother for a walk around parts of the city; admiring the architecture of some of the old university buildings and other heritage structures. One of these was a church whose tower is of Saxon origin (it is close to the building in the photograph, click that to go to my Flickr where you should be able to find photos of the Saxon tower too). It was then back via bus, train and car to Milton Keynes, to collect my brother, and to our ‘holiday’ accommodation.

END OF PART 2

We return to Wales in the final instalment of this mini-series of blog posts, which I did eventually get round to writing.

Away Day

I have recently returned from a ‘short holiday’ to England. This blog post is an account of the first leg. On Saturday (19th March 2016), I set out alone by bus to Fishguard. From there, I walked to Fishguard & Goodwick station, where I found the new toilet had not yet been opened and, after photographing the incoming train, decided to make my way to the harbour station instead. I was pleased to see 158839 doing the honours on the daytime boat-train, rather than the unwelcome class 150 substitute unit which tends to appear whenever I observe this working.

Class 158 DMU at Fishguard & Goodwick station
Much Appreciated: class 158 on the ‘boat train’
After boarding at the harbour, a pleasant ride was had to Llandeilo Junction, where I was a little disappointed to see we took the route towards Swansea rather than the Swansea District Line. Of course the next scheduled stop was Bridgend, so the train instead avoided the ‘Swansea High Street’ terminus by running via the chord behind Landore depot. Despite running slowly from there we still passed Port Talbot around 30 minutes after leaving Llanelli. The slow running was due to following another class 158, presumably the 13:08 Milford Haven to Manchester which would have made more calls than our train. At Bridgend, I alighted to double back to Port Talbot Parkway, and didn’t have long to wait before a class 150 arrived to take me there.
Three First Great Western INTERCITY 125 class 43 power cars at Swansea Landore depot
Landore Line-up: INTERCITY 125s at the Swansea depot
In hindsight, I probably would have got to Port Talbot slightly earlier had I changed at Carmarthen or Llanelli onto a Swansea service and picked up a Swansea-Paddington train there, but I had a long wait in store at Port Talbot anyway so that was not a problem. While I was waiting, at least two (it may have been three) Intercity 125s ran through non-stop heading towards Cardiff. Since the Paddington services normally call at Port Talbot, I surmised these were empty stock moves to Cardiff to provide rugby extra services. Also, as if to prove that Arriva Trains Wales’ shortage of decent rolling stock is still present, the Gloucester to Fishguard service called as scheduled, but worked by a class 150.
Class 175 train passing Port Talbot signal box
Signalbox and Steelworks, a view from the new footbridge at Port Talbot Parkway, with a westbound class 175/1 in the foreground
I’ve gone all the way from Gloucester to Fishguard & Goodwick on that service before, it was a 150 then too and wasn’t my idea of fun. Sundays are different, but the unit which works the Gloucester to Fishguard service is normally supposed to be the class 158 which does the Fishguard boat train the next day, so a 150 on one service generally implies the other will have been or will be.

Eventually, rugby fans started alighting trains from Cardiff, including three other members of my family. Thus reunited, we were able to embark on the next leg of our journey; by car. We eventually found our way out of Port Talbot and onto the M4.

This story has now been continued in this blog post.

Hollow Victory

Class 150 approaching Whitland with a train to Fishguard
The daytime boat train comes into view, approaching Whitland
We probably will never know for sure, but I think today (6th September 2014) was the last day of the Fishguard’s trial enhanced rail service. This post went live at 21:00, as the last train of the day was scheduled to depart Fishguard Harbour. We can, however, be fairly sure that there will still be six trains per day (plus one at night) on Monday as the Welsh Government have annouced that the trial was a success and agreed to fund the service as a full component of the Arriva Trains Wales (ATW) franchise, which runs until 2018.

I wasn’t able to make any of the trial services today, but wanted to mark the occasion with a trip on the line so had to settle for the daytime boat train. In the event, I was dropped off at Whitland station at about 12:10, in time to see a class 150 unit arrive from Pembroke Dock on a Swansea-bound service. Once that had left, I moved to the westbound platform to await the Fishguard service, which was being shown on the passenger information system. I noticed that the remaining calls on the service were listed as “Fishguard Goodwick and Fishguard Harbour”. I have noticed that mistake before at Llanelli, but this suggests the problem is more widespread and still hasn’t been fixed.

Passenger information display at Whitland station showing 'Fishguard Goodwick' calling point
The ‘and’ is missing: Information display at Whitland
The boat train duly arrived, almost on time, about half an hour later. Sadly, the unit was another class 150, not what one hopes to see on the only express service into and out of south-west Wales. After some time when this woefull allocation of stock was ATW policy, I believe the service is now supposed to be worked using a much-nicer class 158 unit. However, they often seem to be short of 158s and the dreaded 150s have to deputise. I boarded along with (I think) six others. Since I was starting from Whitland however, rather than coming all the way from Cardiff, the views on the rural trip along the Fishguard branch largely made up for the metro-sliding doors and absence of legroom on the 150.

Train and passengers at Fishguard & Goodwick station
Local Traffic: Passengers leave the train at Fishguard & Goodwick
A little while later, we arrived at Fishguard & Goodwick where I alighted along with many others. Providing a useful local service on the Fishguard line is therefore proving to be a worthwhile use of the Welsh Government’s money. I dashed out of the station and, after looking both ways, across the road to grab a video clip of the train heading down towards the harbour. After that, I started climbing the hill towards ‘Stop and Call’ (where that name comes from I have no idea) to find a vantage point to film the unit departing Fishguard & Goodwick with the return trip to Cardiff. Another ‘Trains For Fishguard’ video is therefore a possibility, maybe even for release on Monday, but I’m not making any promises. A quick walk down the hill got me to Goodwick town centre just in time to catch the Optare Solo on Richards Bros’ 410 bus service all the way up to Stop and Call, then back down, across and up to Fishguard. There, I had a fair wait in the library (looking railway books) before heading back outside to catch the Richards Bros 412 home. Flagship Optare Tempo YJ55BKF* was on the working, as I had expected.

Returning to the news that the full Fishguard trial service is to continue, there is a key question: is it good news? Yes, of course it is. It is however not quite a decisive victory. The survey carried out, towards the end of the trial period, to help inform the decision of whether to continue with the service suggested that more options were under consideration than just ‘retain service’ or ‘cancel service’. One possibility was retiming the second train of the morning out of Fishguard to provide an arrival in Carmarthen at arround 08:45, instead of arround 9am at present. Another was replacing the last evening train with a later service, in the process eliminating one of the changes that are currently required at Clarbeston Road. There was even an option of additional workings to make the service run every three hours throughout the day. The government’s announcment however does not mention any of these further improvements, the level of service available during the trial will continue unchanged. Good news then that the service will be retained, but not as good as it maybe could have been. And, as seen today, ATW still fails to get the name of one of Fishguard’s stations right and still fails to provide suitable rolling stock for the boat train (although I suppose if there is no 158 available it is better to run something than canceling the train and providing a replacment bus; that said, sitting on YJ55BKF I did wonder whether it was more comfortable than a class 150).

* I don’t know if Richards Bros officially have a flagship, but I refer to Tempos YJ55BKE and YJ55BKF, which are of the same spec, as flagships as they are the best buses I have yet been on.
Note: I did just about get this post out at 21:00, but it was incomplete. I’ve edited it to extend it quite a bit.

End Of An Era

December 21st (2013) was the end of an era for bus services in Ceredigion. The following is my travel report on the day.

Soon after 6pm I arrived at Aberystwyth station to catch the final 18:15 Aberystwyth to Cardigan X50 service.

Optare Tempo YJ55BKE in Aberystwyth
Departure Time, YJ55BKE stands ready at Aberystwyth with the final 18:15 X50 service to Cardigan.

I thought it rather fitting that the vehicle used was YJ55BKE, one of the two Tempos ordered and route-branded for the X50 service. I think this is only the second time I have seen an X50 vehicle on this service (the timetable means the two buses were not sufficent to cover both this working and the two evening full-length 550 runs, so other vehicles have had to substitute). I took this service as far as Aberaeron, passing the Arriva Pulsars on the final northbound 50 service and the penultimate northbound 40 service.

At Aberaeron I alighted to await the final CymruExpress 40 service to Aberystwyth.

Aberaeron Christmas X50
Merry Christmas? The final evening X50 service to Cardigan, with Aberaeron’s christmas lights in the background.

YJ55BKN, once an Arriva-liveried Tempo on the TrawsCambria 550 and X40 but now part of Richards Bro’s fleet, passed on the 17:36 Cardigan to Aberystwyth 550 service (which due to regulations on service length now changes to X50 at Aberaeron). Perhaps this distracted me enough to miss Arriva’s final CymruExpress 50 service, the 18:15 from Aberystwyth. Either way, I did not see that service so I wonder if Arriva failed to run the final 50 service. While I was waiting, one of the Arriva Pulsars came up from the New Quay direction running Out Of Service. Since it wasn’t stopping I only had time to catch part of the number plate.

Final Arriva 40 bus, Aberaeron
The last Arriva 40 arrives at Aberaeron

I spent some of the rather long wait for the 40 taking photographs of the Christmas lights on Alban Square. The final 40 service finally arrived, rather ungloriously formed of V580ECC (complete with the old-fashioned bus seats which I believe are now largely confined to Northern Rail’s Pacer fleet). As I boarded, the driver realised I was out to ride the last 40 service, my camera was probably a dead give away. Then he asked, “it’s a shame isn’t it?” I think my reply was “In a way, yes.”

Onboard the last 40 service
Retro Seats: onboard the last 40 service

What I meant was, it’s a shame the bus depot in Aberystwyth is closing, and it’s a shame some of the staff Arriva have made redundant may be unable to find alternative employment. However, I’m not sorry at all that Arriva have left the area, their policies have been obstructive in the aims of providing a good overall public transport service and at times they have displayed incompetence. I stress that I attribute these problems to the distant management, the local staff are probably completely blameless and had they been employed by the local independent operators instead of Arriva I’m sure we wouldn’t have had these problems.

End of the line
End of the line: the last Arriva 40 at Aberystwyth

At Aberystwyth, after taking some photos of the last 40 at the station, I quickly dashed over to the Arriva depot to see if I could photograph the fleet. It was however too dark and the photographs didn’t come out well enough. Then it was time for a lift home by car, passing ex-Arriva (now Richards Bros) Optare Tempo YJ06YRZ (heading into Aberystwyth on the final 550 service) as we left the town.

Off into the night
Off into the night: YJ55BKE departs Aberaeron for Cardigan on the last direct evening service

EDIT 1st Jan 2014: added photographs from the day