Welcome aboard the latest in my biennial trips around Britain for RAIL. Over the next three issues I’ll be taking you on a lightning tour over parts of the UK’s rail network. I’ve travelled on strike and blockades days (so you don’t have to!) to bring you a snapshot of how our railways are faring in 2018. Enjoy the ride!
My trip starts on a Sunday, as I want to experience what it’s like travelling when Euston and the southern end of the West Coast Main Line is shut.
I begin at Sowerby Bridge in the pretty Calder Valley, where I catch the 0901 to Manchester Victoria. The Calder route is a good example of the changes we’re seeing right now - it’s in the middle of a £100 million investment programme, so the 0901 is the first train of the day. There’s evidence of modernisation all along the route, with stations such as Sowerby having platforms extended to fit Northern’s (longer) new trains. The train itself is a refurbished Northern Class 158.
First stop is Mytholmroyd, where the massive station building that has been derelict for decades is being refurbished thanks to the efforts of the local community rail activists. The Calder Valley line is blessed with some active groups who have made a huge difference to their stations.
At Hebden Bridge more changes are evident. The Leeds-bound platform has almost doubled in length, while the lovely old Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway signal box is due to be decommissioned (on October 23, after this issue of RAIL went to press) when the new signals that surround it go live. Only a few Lancashire signal boxes such as Castleton East (which still controls a few semaphores) will survive.
Arriving into Manchester Victoria, I am greeted by a very different scene to a few months ago. Since the Ordsall Chord opened, the station has become just as much a hub for TransPennine Express services as for Northern. Variety has been enhanced by a rag-bag of former Great Western Railway diesel multiple units adding yet another livery variation.
Engineering work means the quickest way to Piccadilly station is to walk, and as I leave the concourse my eyes are drawn to the tragic new memorial next to the ‘Soldiers Gate’. Not to soldiers, but to 22 civilians - innocent adults and children - killed in last year’s suicide bomb attack at the Ariana Grande concert in the stadium above the station.
Piccadilly station is its usually buzzy self - and no, I don’t mean because of the Manchester bee statues! Virgin Trains is only running an hourly service to Rugby owing to the Wembley blockade, so rather than wait for that I decide to head to Stockport and cross to Sheffield to head down the Midland Main Line.
My cunning plan falls apart as soon as I step off the train, as I hear a message being relayed to Virgin staff: Hope Valley services are suspended due to a broken rail - inside the Disley tunnel of all places!
Sensing that’s ‘game over’, I chat to the very helpful Virgin team on the station. They have been advised to send passengers one of two ways: via Leeds and York (!); or via Birmingham and the Chilterns, which was the route I wanted.
After kicking my heels for nearly an hour, I board CrossCountry’s packed 1136 to Bournemouth, worked by a single Class 221. And when I say packed, I mean packed - even a sardine would have got claustrophobia! I manage to squeeze into a space by the bike storage area, which is my home for the next two-plus hours. Other XC services had been doubled in size, but not this one. On the bright side, it isn’t a four-car Class 220 like the earlier train.
Despite the crush, most passengers remain stoic. Regular travellers know what to expect, and the Train Manager does an excellent job in apologising while explaining that Euston is closed. The melee on arrival at Birmingham New Street resembles an American football game, as passengers getting off with bags, rucksacks and suitcases try to fight their way through the equally encumbered passengers getting on. My standing room gets smaller. This isn’t Sardine space anymore, we’re into Anchovy territory now!
By now we are running late, so my connection at Banbury is looking fraught. We make it with seven minutes to spare - just long enough to grab supplies from the station cafe, as there’s no refreshment trolley on Chiltern services.
The platform is packed with well over 100 people when a pair of Chiltern Class 168s rolls in to take us to Marylebone, but no one is left behind. I even manage to bag a table seat, which is welcome after two hours stood staring at suitcases.
Considering that this was a Cinderella line before privatisation, the transformation has been amazing. New trains, new services, and even new lines and stations make it a very busy route.
As we speed through the Chilterns, I try to visualise the route of HS2 in relation to us. Right now, there’s little sign of progress, but it will be a very different picture when I come this way in 2020. As we rush past Princes Risborough I catch a glimpse of the rebuilt Platform 4 that opened in August, allowing the preserved Chinnor railway to connect with the main line - which can only be good for everyone.
Our arrival at Marylebone precipitates another scrum, this time to get through the ticket gates. I head to Baker Street station, only to find it isn’t just the national network closing lines. The Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City lines are also closed, so I have to catch a bus to Euston.
To say that the area around Euston is changing is an understatement. Early work for building HS2 has been under way for some time now. All the buildings to the west side bordering Coburg Street and those fronting the station are boarded up and being stripped ready for demolition, while archaeological work continues in the former St James’ gardens.
The area is awash with people wearing HS2 high-vis, while the only signs of protest are a few sad scarves tied to trees on the east side gardens. The national StopHS2 campaign has collapsed since my 2016 Rail Rover - any protests now are localised and tiny.
Venturing into the station proper, I find it almost deserted. Apart from the Underground, no trains are running at all. It’s quite eerie seeing the concourse so quiet - it’s as if the famed Zombie Apocalypse has really happened.
To get back north I head over to St Pancras station, one of the jewels in the railways crown. It’s still one of my favourite stations, so I am sad not to be able to hang around to sample the delights of the many cafes, restaurants or bars that make it such a destination station.
I am whisked north aboard one of East Midlands Trains’ venerable HSTs, which is packed with people like me using the route as an alternative to Euston, leaving me to stand again! As we head north I am struck by how much work has already been done to electrify the route as far as Corby. Four-tracking at Sharnbrook (north of Bedford), numerous overbridge replacements, signalling renewals, and foot crossings replaced by bridges all tell the tale.
At Kettering, Virgin passengers decamp to catch coaches to Rugby, where Pendolinos wait to ferry them north. I remain aboard and grab a vacant seat, which allows me to observe the OLE masts, extra running line and new crossovers at Kettering North Junction, where the line to Corby diverges.
At Trent South Junction we diverge, too. As Derby is closed for rebuilding, we continue on up the Erewash Valley past Toton depot before regaining our normal rote at Clay Cross Junction and on to Sheffield, where I pay brief homage to one of the finest station bars (the Station Tap) before catching a Northern service to Wakefield Kirkgate for a connecting Grand Central service home to Halifax.
Monday starts early, as I catch my usual 0708 Grand Central service for a very different day to Sunday. The train is extremely busy, a testament to the idea to run this service in the first place. I travel on 180104, an ex-GWR set refurbished by Grand Central. They’re comfortable, smart, and certainly look the part.
At Doncaster I swap to LNER, for a run to Stevenage aboard one of the HST sets that will soon be displaced by the ‘Azumas’. It’s a pleasant run marred only by the gloomy weather.
Venturing to the quiet buffet I am served by a jovial chap called Phil, who jokes about how slow the coffee machines are. Sipping the bitter brew back at my table, I am reminded why I think the Mk 3s are past their sell-by date - we pass another train at speed and the cup nearly leaps off the table due to the pressure pulse! I’m glad I’d not been using my laptop - it would have been disastrous.
On arrival at Stevenage I swap from old to new, catching a Thameslink Class 700 southwards. Love ’em or hate ’em, these things are real people movers, shifting 1,700 passengers a time.
The train is heading for Horsham via St Pancras and the Thameslink core. As someone who lived in London for many years, I’m still impressed by the way many terminal stations are now bypassed and new journey opportunities have opened. We run fast to Finsbury Park before crossing the King’s Cross throat to descend into St Pancras and on to Farringdon, where I change to the Tube for the short hop to Liverpool Street station.
Surveying the ranks of the different train classes at the station, I realise that in the next couple of years they will all vanish. Greater Anglia has opted for total fleet replacement, ordering 1,043 new vehicles. With this in mind, I savour my trip to Norwich aboard a rake of Mk 3 coaches pushed by 90005. But Anglia is not just about new trains, as I observe on the trip to Norwich. The overhead power supplies have been modernised and strengthened over the past few years, as part of a rolling programme.
At Ipswich, I break my journey to admire the improvements that have earned Ipswich this year’s National Rail Awards Station of the Year (Large) accolade (see panel).
The forecourt has been vastly improved, making it more pedestrian and cycle-friendly. Inside, the main building has been opened out into one large space divided by a gate line with a new ticket office and machines on one side, while the other contains seating, a customer service desk, as well as W H Smiths, Greggs and Starbucks. It’s an impressive refurbishment of an old building.
Moving on again, I head to Norwich en route to exploring the Wherry Line, one of the last bastions of semaphore signalling. But change is coming… and soon. Network Rail is carrying out a £68m resignalling project that will sweep away old ways of working, so enjoy the traditional railway feel while you can.
I catch a train to Lowestoft, passing through delightful little stations such as Brundall where the gates are opened manually by a crossing keeper, while the junction for Great Yarmouth is guarded by a grade 2-listed GER wooden signal box.
Further on, Cantley also has hand-operated gates and a (much-modified) GER signal box, while the station is guarded on the Down line by what I believe to be one of only two co-acting signal arm semaphores left in the UK (the other is at Helsby, in Cheshire).
Next up is Reedham, the junction for the line via Berney Arms. It’s a gem of a station, with an active station friends group which maintains the gardens and a small museum in the old Down side station building. As well as the tall brick signal box adjacent to the junction, there’s a fine array of semaphores.
Swinging right, the line crosses the River Yare on a working swing bridge before crossing classic Broads countryside to follow the Yare to Haddiscoe, where it crosses the Somerleyton swing bridge before reaching Oulton Broad North (protected by another signal box and semaphores).
After the station, the East Suffolk Line trails in from the right. Finally, it arrives into Lowestoft, past acres of empty sidings to terminate at a station that’s a shadow of its former self, but interesting nonetheless. The walls that once supported an overall roof are decorated with murals describing the town history, and inside the ticket office is a plaque that commemorates the wartime evacuees who were sent to Glossop in Derbyshire. The two station friends groups still celebrate the links, and some of the surviving evacuees make the trip to Glossop every year.
In keeping with the spirit of nostalgia, my return trip is made aboard a rake of Mk 2 coaches top-and-tailed by a pair of Class 37s - remarkable survivors in themselves, but also about to be replaced along with the signalling. Enjoy the experiences while you can, because very soon the sights and sounds will no longer be ‘Normal for Norfolk’!
Back at Norwich, I strike out across country on a line that’s already been modernised - the route from Norwich to Ely, swapping vintage stock for a more modern (but still BR era) Class 158 working the 1754 to Peterborough. The train is 75% full, but it’s obvious that many are commuters who aren’t travelling far.
I’ve described this line many times in the past. Many of the old signal boxes survive, but they’re boarded up and decaying. The old telegraph poles that gave this line its ‘olde-worlde’ feel have gone the same way as the semaphores. Nowadays, the only thing of note along this route are the pig farms. I travel the country all the time, but I’ve never seen so many. I’ve often wondered why they set up shop here.
The stations along the line are well maintained, although Thetford - with its attractive garden posters and artwork - is marred somewhat by beer cans littering the four foot between the station and the footbridge. Maybe it’s a new art installation?
As we travel west the countryside becomes flatter and the railway meanders as much as the Little Ouse river it follows. Past Brandon we leave the woodlands behind, and the railway becomes as straight as a die as it passes through acres of sweetcorn. I have an app on my phone which gives me access to all the Ordnance Survey maps, so it’s fascinating to follow our progress and realise this area’s a veritable spider’s web of unseen drainage ditches.
The tall tower of Ely cathedral heralds our arrival into the city - in these flatlands, you can see it for miles. As we approach we pass the Potters Group yard, which has become a repository of surplus trains. Ex-GWR HSTs stand idle near the main line, and at the back of the site are fans of new sidings containing stored Class 442. I’ve read somewhere that the thousands of trains coming off-lease will require a total of 52 miles of sidings to store them in. Potters and other storage yards are going to have their work cut out!
From Ely we dash across the Fens through March, which has an impressive collection of concrete post semaphore signals and a station that’s receiving a lot of TLC from another Friends group. This section of line is another pocket of manual signalling and a real contrast to Peterborough, which has been transformed in recent years, and which is where I change to catch a train north. I used to spend a lot of time here nearly 30 years ago, and can’t believe how busy it is now - or how big. There seemsto be a constant stream of traffic, from new Class 700s and on-test Azumas to the old East Coast workhorses, the Class 365s, HSTs and Class 91s.
It’s a ‘91’ that arrives to take me north to Leeds on the 1952. It is blissfully quiet, allowing me to set up my laptop and catch up on my notes unbothered by even as much as a ticket check. With the rush hour over I have arrived at the ‘sweet spot’ between then and the pubs and bars kicking the drunks out, which leaves me with a peaceful journey back home to Halifax at the end of a long day.
I start the day by ‘cheating’ and getting a lift into Huddersfield from my wife, who works in the ACoRP water tower adjacent to the station.
I want to sample the Colne Valley services, as they’ve changed since the May timetable and not everyone’s happy about it. The hourly Northern local train that linked Huddersfield with Manchester and formed the backbone of the ‘rail ale trail’ has been replaced by a skip-stop TPE service.
While it’s lovely to be swapping a Pacer or Class 150 for a refurbished Class 185 with WiFi and plug sockets, it’s academic if that service keeps getting delayed or cancelled - which is happening far too often.
I catch a service that is working to Manchester Airport via Victoria, allowing me to see what’s being done on the route as part of the upgrade. At the moment, Colne Valley work is confined to a large amount of vegetation clearance and repairs to the famous aqueduct carrying the stream over and between the tracks outside the Standedge tunnel at Marsden. This is such a scenic route that opening the views makes travel even more of a pleasure. Far too many of our railway lines have become ‘green tunnels’ where vegetation is both damaging and dangerous.
At Stalybridge (another station with new platforms), we take the old L&Y route via Ashton-under-Lyne. Network Rail has been busy here. Many of the overbridges have been raised for the wires, while the old wooden signal box at Ashton North Junction has been swept away and the junction completely remodelled.
Descending the bank into Victoria we come under the wires once more, as electrification is slowly being extended to cover the crossings east of the station. Tempting as it is to stay on my train to traverse the new Ordsall Chord, I have other things to see so I swap over to a Northern Pacer for a trip out to Bolton.
A bit of artwork on this particular Pacer catches my eye. In one of the glass screens by the door is etched the old Tyne and Wear PTE ‘barbed wire’ symbol, marking out the unit as one of the batch that used to operate around Newcastle.
As we bounce and screech our way to Bolton, I can see Network Rail has made a lot of progress in stringing up the wires since my last visit a few weeks earlier. In many places the contact wires are up, and apart from clipping and tensioning there appears little more to do.
I take time off to wander around Bolton station (yet another location where an old platform has been brought back into use), before continuing under more new wires to Preston. Here I board a Northern Class 319 for a smashing run on the newly electrified line to Blackpool North. It is far superior to the old DMU service - we fly along the renovated railway, past much rebuilt Kirkham and Wesham station, stopping only at pretty Poulton-le-Fylde with its original L&Y buildings and platform cafe.
As well as trying the new electrified service, I have come to Blackpool as a ‘mystery shopper’. For years the station has had a poor reputation for its treatment of railway enthusiasts, so I put this to the test by going to sign in and say I am there to take some photos. The staff cannot be more friendly and helpful. Their only request is that I wear a high-vis vest, so that when I stand at the end of platforms drivers do not mistake me for a potential suicide.
Blackpool’s famous semaphores have all disappeared, and now the view from the platform ends is dominated by electrification masts. It may not be as atmospheric, but once services are back to normal it will be a vast improvement.
Heading back to Preston, I dash down the West Coast Main Line to Wigan North Western to travel on another recently electrified line - the route through St Helens and Huyton to Liverpool Lime Street aboard yet another ex-Thameslink Class 319.
More money is being spent here. Wigan Springs branch depot is being rebuilt as a home for Northern’s new trains, the line from Huyton on to Roby has gained four tracks again, and Lime Street is undergoing a complete rebuild with more platforms, longer platforms, and new signalling. In all my years of travelling, I can’t remember when I’ve seen so many major projects either going on or recently completed. Yes, there are delays to some, but honestly, what a transformation the railways are experiencing - and that’s before the thousands of new trains that are on order arrive…
Walking over to Liverpool Central, I catch a packed 40-year-old Merseyrail Class 507 to what remains one of the strangest outposts of the modern railway, and a hangover from the days of BR rationalisation and PTE boundaries… Kirkby.
Once, this was the L&Y main line from Liverpool to Manchester. Now it’s divided by two pairs of buffer stops and a missing section of track at Kirkby, where passengers leave the electrified Merseyrail line and swap to Northern for the rest of the journey through to Wigan. Ironically, the only other place in the UK where this happens is also on Merseyside - at nearby Ormskirk.
It’s an interesting timewarp for another reason, which is that it’s single track to Rainford, where the line is controlled by semaphores and the signaller still has to leave his ’box to collect the token from the driver (a practice that’s rapidly dying out in the UK).
I change at Rainford to get pictures of this archaic practice, before heading eastwards. You can tell you’re travelling on a former main line - there are no level crossings, while gradients have been made as easy as possible by wide use of embankments and cuttings.
I leave the pair of Class 142s that had worked the service at Wigan Wallgate, another in a long list of stations that have recently been refurbished and which also have an active friends group. This one’s supported by one of the premier station groups in the country, based at nearby Hindley. They’ve won the coveted Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) ‘it’s your station’ award two years running.
As one of the judges for the awards I’ve seen first hand the amazing things they’ve done to their station (take a look: it’s a gem, with a fantastic garden and excellent artwork that even has a model of one of the old local collieries). But these groups are about far more than gardening, and the work they do to make the stations more welcoming to passengers is only part of their story - they do some fantastic work with their communities, too.
After Hindley my Pacer takes the Atherton lines at Crow Nest Junction, avoiding Bolton to traverse the former L&Y direct line to Manchester. Nowadays, this is a shadow of its former self - the four tracks were reduced to two decades ago, and all the collieries and power stations that provided traffic for the route are long gone. Today it’s purely a passenger railway, although many of the stations retain their old character.
Passing the abandoned and buddleia-festooned Pemberton station we join the Bolton line at Salford Crescent, before rattling along under the new electric masts through Salford (with a skyline that’s changed out of all recognition in a decade) to Manchester Victoria. All that’s left to do is to catch one last train home, retracing my route through the Calder Valley.
The past three days have been one of real contrasts. I have seen very positive changes since 2016, with the railways expanding and modernising, and with lots more to come. But I have also been left frustrated by how many trains I have caught which were late - not always by huge amounts, but enough to make catching connections frustrating.
You have to wonder: if all this money’s being spent, why aren’t things improving? I hope Network Rail’s new chief executive Andrew Haines has the answers to that one...