RAIL subscribers waiting for their issue 322 to drop through the letterbox on a cold Saturday January 10 1998 were in for some especially good news!
In that issue, RAIL announced that it was joining forces with the country’s largest rail freight operator, English Welsh & Scottish Railway, to stage a two-day charity fundraising open weekend at EWS’s (and indeed the UK’s) biggest traction depot - Toton in Nottinghamshire.
Readers were advised to block out August 29/30 in their diaries - and all RAIL staff were told they would be working that weekend, so not to book any holidays. That led to a problem for me - I had to tell my brother he’d either need to change his wedding date or his younger sibling would be in Nottingham. He moved it forward a week!
Depot and Works open days - a chance for the public to see behind the scenes of a railway maintenance facility - had been common in BR days, but had declined by the end of the 20th century. After a few ‘turbulent’ years as the nationalised rail industry was carved up and transferred to the private sector, the ‘new’ railway was still ‘finding its feet’. Staging an open day was low on the list of priorities.
However, the sale of the rail freight businesses to the private sector had been easier than the passenger franchises. And EWS, under its charismatic chairman and chief executive Ed Burkhardt, had found the transition relatively pain-free.
Also, 1998 was to prove a landmark year for both EWS and for UK rail freight in general - as the first of its 250 Class 66s was due for delivery. It was the year that EWS, and the Class 66, would change the face of rail freight for ever.
Nigel Harris, RAIL’s Managing Editor, recalls how the seed for the event was sown: “When Wisconsin Central acquired the UK Trainload Freight businesses, I started a good rapport with Ed. We got on really well and he was enthusiastic about the UK rail freight market. We had regular chats - in fact, I don’t think a day passed without one of the RAIL team talking to an EWS manager.
“We had worked with EWS from day one, and Ed approached us to run a logo competition, which came to fruition in early 1997 with the famous ‘three beasties’ emblem being adopted for the company’s branding.
“It was Ed who mentioned to me the idea of an open day. He suggested Toton as it had the most activity and the most room. He said this without even consulting with the depot manager or any of his EWS managers!
“Ed was clear from the start that he wanted as much as possible from the EWS fleet there - including some Class 66s, which should have started to have been delivered by then.
“The open day culture had died out since privatisation. Open days had been locally arranged by depot foremen, but they were getting few and far between. I think the last decent depot open day had been Tinsley in April 1996, but privatisation led to the end of those.
“But Ed’s enthusiasm for the Toton open weekend was infectious. He was well ‘up for it’ and his team couldn’t have been any more helpful.”
When RAIL launched the event, we promised the first chance to get close to a Class 66, while and EWS had agreed to return first-built Class 37, 37350, to its original condition. It would lose its shabby Trainload Petroleum colours for original British Railways green, as D6700.
Says Nigel: “I was stood at Peterborough station one Saturday morning on my way to York, when this grubby Class 37 in one of the old Trainload liveries came through on an engineers’ train. I didn’t take too much notice of it until I saw it had 6700 crudely applied on one end, and then it dawned on me it was the class pioneer D6700. It looked awful - really grubby and dirty, and in really poor shape. So, we approached EWS about getting it ‘done up’.
“We were just expecting a coat of green paint, we never expected the Thornaby depot staff to go to the lengths they went to.”
RAIL readers were also offered half-price, fast track entry, pre-booked tickets if they collected three tokens in the magazine. We didn’t reveal all the attractions in one issue (after all, some hadn’t even been agreed), and over the next few months readers would await their new issues with anticipation as more exhibits were announced.
In early April (RAIL 328), came the announcement of an early bird photographers’ event, limited to 100 people who would be granted access at 0900, an hour before the gates were to open. The depot was also going to have exhibits staged with all the ‘older’ (preserved) locomotives on one side and the newer and current locomotives on the other side. We also planned a park and ride bus shuttle from nearby Stanton.
RAIL 329 contained the first teaser that a Class 31 and ‘33’ would be repainted into EWS colours for the event, despite both fleets being in their last few months of traffic. Meanwhile, Freightliner confirmed it would send a Class 57 (the locomotives still under construction at Brush). Royal 47s, 47798/798, as well as 47785/786 were also added to the guest list.
Four namings were planned. And although it wasn’t yet mentioned, they would include 58050 being reunited with its Toton Traction Depot nameplates and a Class 37/4 being named RAIL Magazine. This was now turning into the railway’s equivalent of a music festival!
Early May confirmed 58050’s re-christening. Thornaby depot was also announced as being given the job of restoring D6700, so I set about preparing details of what could be done to make it look as original as possible. At the time, not even I expected Thornaby to go the extra mile that it did!
In late May (RAIL 331), EWS nominated 33025 and 31466 for repainting (in the event the former was swapped to 33030), and we confirmed 37408 as most likely to be named after our magazine.
The latter news opened a right can of worms. At the time, EWS had just announced that six Class 37/4s would be overhauled, and there was ‘concern’ among some enthusiasts that 37408 (the last in the popular ex-BR ‘large logo’ livery) would lose this livery and its Loch Rannoch nameplates. Despite us reminding people that this was EWS’s decision, and that it had the right to paint its locomotives in its own livery if it so desired, grumblings continued.
As it transpired, the overhaul of 37408 was delayed, so EWS decided to repaint and name 37417, leaving 37408 as it was. 37408 did emerge in EWS livery, and we asked EWS to refit the Loch Rannoch nameplates, which it did.
The repaints of the ‘31’ and ‘33’ would mean that EWS would have examples of Classes 31, ‘33’, ‘37’, ‘47’, ‘56’, ‘58’, ‘60’, ‘73’, ‘86’ and ‘90’ in its livery - and it was planned to have one of each at Toton.
Pullman 73101 The Royal Alex was also added to the line-up, as was BR blue 56004, while locomotives in Rail Express Systems, Loadhaul, Mainline Freight and Transrail liveries were also expected to attend. EWS said it would also try to get locomotives in obsolete liveries, such as Dutch, InterCity and Network SouthEast colours, if possible. In the pre-digital camera days, we advised visitors to ‘bring lots of film’!
RAIL 333 was packed with Toton updates. First up was the news that on June 1 tatty 37350 had been sent to the North East for its transformation.
Meanwhile, Class 47/7s top-and-tailing shuttle trains from Nottingham to a temporary platform at Toton (which would also welcome charter trains) would overcome the lack of parking at the depot. Travel on these shuttles was included in the entry fee!
Also added to the guest list was an EWS Class 59/2. At the time, 33025 was still in the frame for repainting, and it was hoped it would be renamed Sultan. Sadly, those did not come to pass, but you can’t have it all!
EWS went on the record to defend its decision to repaint and rename 37408, highlighting that the overhaul would have led to it being repainted and denamed regardless. It did also state that 37401 would retain its Mary Queen of Scots name.
The other two namings were also announced - they would be 56069 Stanton, while a Class 60 would be named Mountsorrel. A nameplate from 60042 Dunkery Beacon would also be raffled for charity.
On June 13, the pre-booked tickets were launched. Readers needed to collect three tokens in issues 333-335 to qualify for two adult tickets at £3.50, and four weeks later - when RAIL 335 appeared - the office was inundated with applications.
RAIL 334 contained pictures of 37350 undergoing restoration, reunited with communication doors recovered from 37341, and with the replating of the rotten bodywork also ongoing. EWS also confirmed it would refit buffer beam skirts, glass headcode panels and roller blind headcodes. D6700 would be displayed without yellow panels, which would be applied before it returned to traffic.
RAIL 335 confirmed a line-up of all three Peak classes. The Class 44s and ‘45s’ were ingrained in Toton history, while ‘46s’ were not uncommon at the depot. The early bird snappers’ event was extended to start at 0730, and the actual show itself would now open at 0900 on both days.
The countdown to the big day was slowly ticking, and RAIL staff were making regular visits to Toton to help with the planning. All the behind-the-scenes stuff (First Aid stations, toilets, fencing, and everything that is essential on the day but which no one is interested in during the run-up to the event) had to be planned.
In RAIL 337, published in early August, it was announced that 33030, 37417 and 56091 were replacing 33025, 37408 and 56069 for their day in the limelight. On August 3, 31466 was in the Toton paintshop for its transformation.
RAIL 338, the last issue before the show, contained a full preview plus a depot profile of Toton to whet the appetite. On August 18, I travelled to see D6700 in all its glory… and John Mackeral and his team at Thornaby had done a truly amazing job. Aside from the orange cant rail strip (a Railtrack necessity), it looked ‘the business’.
92001, in EWS livery, was added to the line-up, as were 66003-005, which were due to arrive a couple of days before the show. And Freightliner was sending 86631 - the first of its ‘86s’ in its new green and yellow livery - along with 57001.
Editorially, everything was all set. But behind the scenes, things were still ongoing to make sure all the exhibits made it on time, and that everything was in place to allow the event to pass off without a hitch.
The morning of Saturday August 29 1998 dawned sunny and bright. A hearty breakfast at our hotel ensured that the RAIL team of Nigel Harris, Mel Holley, Philip Haigh, Steven Knight, Howard Johnston, Lee West and myself were set for the day. We ate our ‘Full Englishes’ with the EWS press and media team - Sue Evans, Andy Saunders, Andy Lickfold and Dick Crane.
A day before, 66001 had collected BR green 37403 and 66003-005 from Newport, and the four new locomotives were now lined up alongside D6700. EWS had pulled out all the stops and lined up the locomotives with some thought. There were three green Class 47s - EWS’s own 47004 and 47484 Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Freightliner’s 47114. British Steel blue 60006 Scunthorpe Ironmaster had also been taken to the depot and was lined up alongside 57001 and 59203.
And then at 0900, the gates were opened and the crowds flocked in… and boy did they flock. Over the two days, 30,000 people visited, making it the most attended rail event since the Rainhill celebrations of 1980.
The event had it all - the highlights were almost too many to mention. For example, how about nine examples of ‘first of class’ - D200, D5500, D6700, D800, 27001, 57001, 59001, 66001 and 92001? What about Toton classics such as ‘20s’, ‘44s’, ‘45s’, ‘56s’ and ‘58s’? Those EWS repaints? Four ex-WR named ‘47s’ (47484, 47624, 47767 and 47843)? All four UK Class 66s? A reunion of all three Peak types - 44004 Great Gable, 45060 Sherwood Forester and D172 Ixion.
A few exhibits failed to make it - we didn’t get an EWS red ‘47’, ‘86’ or ‘90’ (Belgian 90028 was sent instead), and one or two heritage locomotives failed to be moved in time - but 77 locomotives (diesel, electric and two steam) did attend.
On the morning of the show, there was not a cloud in the sky. It was clearly going to be a blazing hot day. During the first day, I remember the crowds almost mobbing Ed Burkhardt as he took to the stage to name 37417. This was the head man of a rail freight company, not a Premier League footballer or a rock star. I remember even being asked to sign programmes, something I found a little baffling. I was just a writer on a magazine, why would anyone want my autograph?
Toton also cost me dearly. There were so many trade stands, and so much to buy. I must have spent £100 or more on books for my growing collection. I definitely got my copy of Profile of the Westerns from one of the many second-hand book dealers!
Nigel Harris recalls the start of the show: “On the day, we had held an early bird photographers’ event from 0730, and the gates for the general public weren’t due to open until 0900. It was about 0815, and I was wandering around seeing how everything was setting up when this copper came up to ask me if I was involved with the show. I said I was and he said ‘well, we need to let people in. The queues are ridiculous - the high street is full of people’.
“There must have been about 3,000 people queuing to get in, and the gates were not due to open for another 45 minutes. The policeman said the gates ‘had to be opened now’ to get the people off the road! We did just that, and it was like a tidal wave of people coming in!
“Later in the day I saw Ian Braybrook, and he just shrugged his shoulders in disbelief at how popular the event was proving. The people kept coming in, it didn’t tail off until the Sunday afternoon.
“Another thing I remember is how trouble-free the event was. We had St John’s Ambulance, and other than dishing out the odd plaster they had just two ‘incidents’: one bloke tripped over something, and another had a bit of a hot flush due to the excitement or the weather or both, and needed a little ‘sit down’!
“At the end of the Saturday we went for a curry to unwind, and as we left the curry house we said ‘let’s do this again tomorrow’!
“It’s also worth mentioning that the show was for the benefit of the industry - it showed it in a good light and its influence is still with us today in RAIL Live. It’s not as big a show, but we certainly used the lessons learned from Toton in staging that event.
“Toton was a huge success and did so much for the industry. And after it was over, RAIL agreed to do the same at Old Oak Common two years later. But that's another story…”