Journey's end

Day 7

As expected, the morning’s breakfast TV is full of the news about Virgin losing the West Coast franchise, but you wouldn’t know it from the demeanour of the Virgin staff at Carlisle. They go about their jobs as if nothing had happened. 

It is only when I catch a Voyager to Edinburgh, and mention the change to the young lady in the shop, that the fears I’d heard yesterday are repeated. I can only commiserate and wish her well. 

Although the news comes as no surprise, it still feels odd to think this could be my last time writing about Virgins trains. They had offered some great service over the years, providing a constant on the changing franchise map… until now.  

Putting aside my thoughts on franchises, I enjoy the scenery along the Scottish borders up to Edinburgh, where I step out into yet another enormous building site - Waverley station, where Network Rail is busy on a £130m refurbishment and extension programme. 

Now I know what it must have felt like under Ena Sharples’ hairnet! Waverley’s roof has vanished under masses of blue netting and scaffolding, leaving passengers to pick their way through the gloomy maze and clutter below, in a powerful example of the difficulties faced when builders and passengers have to co-exist. 

I stay long enough to get shots of the work before taking my leave on a ScotRail Class 170 for Dundee. Since I last caught one, they’ve been fitted with fast, simple to use (and free) WiFi. They’re also comfortable and fast, making them very attractive trains. 

Now you can share with people in real time, via Twitter or Facebook, your awe at crossing the Forth rail bridge (I know I did). Sadly the Fife weather is less then awesome, and it is almost impossible to see the nearby road bridge through the fog. 

It is the same along the coast, although stations such as Ladybank and Leuchars provide attractive diversions. The latter has a huge bank of solar panels atop its canopy, which makes me wonder: how many more stations could deploy such technology? 

The gloomy weather remains with me all the way across the Tay, where we cross the magnificent bridge to the journey’s end in Dundee, terminating in one of the two bay platforms. 

The roof over the single island platform is a rather impressive Victorian structure, and the station’s buildings are a mix of old and new. Traditionally Scottish is the station bar, which offers ‘Plonk Du Tay’ on its wine menu. It’s a bit of a time warp, and the sort of establishment where you don’t pick your drink up off the bar… you unstick it. 

Resisting the temptation to explore Dundee’s new waterfront developments, I catch the next train further north to Aberdeen. In contrast to my earlier train, this is a busy service filled with a gamut of people, from groups of weather-beaten oil rig workers through to students and old ladies. 

The route itself is one of the last two remaining semaphore signalled main lines (and the only 100mph one?), holding the title jointly with the Great Western Main Line in Cornwall. It has the feel of a traditional main line, as many stations still have signalboxes, semaphores and yards full of sidings - making it well worth a visit before the inevitable happens and resignalling arrives. 

Students of station architecture will also enjoy places such as Lauencekirk, an attractive Aberdeen Railway station building dating from 1849 that was closed in 1967. This wooden building lay derelict for decades before being restored and re-opened in 2009. And it has become a roaring success, doubling the projected 36,000 passenger numbers in its first year!

The route to Aberdeen is also remarkably scenic, although the stunning sea views where the line hugs the coast are rather lost in the gloomy weather, which lasts all the way to Aberdeen. The ‘Granite City’ is the third largest in Scotland, and its economic importance is sometimes overlooked by us ‘Southerners’ (although I doubt many First Group employees forget that’s where their company is headquartered).

Aberdeen station reflects the town’s importance. The huge 21-span glass roof over the light and spacious concourse is impressive, but I am in for an even bigger surprise when I step outside. 

In years gone by I remember running the gauntlet of incontinent seagulls that perched atop every lamppost, but now Aberdeen’s station front has been incorporated into a covered plaza for the Union Square shopping and entertainment complex. It’s another great example of how the railways have become integrated into people’s everyday activities - you step straight off the train into shops, cinemas or restaurants. 

This is the furthest north I get on this trip. I retrace my steps as far as Dundee, where I follow the bank of the River Tay as far as Perth. I have come here to admire another superb example of station architecture - the work of the English architect Sir William Tite, who designed many other railway stations (including Carlisle). 

Perth remains a junction, but services have contracted considerably, leaving a station that’s miles too big for its current role. It makes for a sad sight, dwarfing the two-car and three-car DMUs that skulk in its lengthy platforms. 

Between trains it’s eerily quiet, so it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday, with multitudes of station staff and passengers bustling around long trains heading for the Highlands, the empty footbridges teeming with people, and the station buildings alive with tearooms and offices. 

Now the noise comes from the cooing pigeons that have found their way through the swathes of pigeon netting protecting the overall roof. The only human presence is a chap in the ticket office and a pair of bored teenagers slumped in the uninviting cafe in the modern entrance building. 

I just wish a role could be found for such stations, restoring the vibrancy and relevance they once had. I know Network Rail (and in England, ACoRP) try hard, but I suspect Perth’s location on the edge of the town centre isn’t going to make it easy.  

The station livens up when my onward train brings dozens of Glasgow commuters home, and there is momentary confusion as the train crew (who think their two units are to split) are told the service will stay together, leaving me the sole passenger in the rear ‘158’ for the trip back to Dundee! 

I have come back this way to test my decibel meter, and try out the WiFi on an East Coast HST. By now the gloomy weather has broken, and we are treated to a good old-fashioned deluge that highlights one of the drawbacks of Mk 3 stock - the gangways flood as water pours in through the seals!

The weather has broken by the time we cross the Forth bridge, treating me to the sight of ships lit up like fairground rides, set against the dying rays of the sun that have pierced retreating storm-clouds - a gorgeous sight. 

Back at Edinburgh, I fight my way through the scrum to catch a Class 334 EMU to Glasgow. It seems odd to see one of these Strathclyde PTE-branded units, as they never used to appear in Edinburgh, but they have become regular visitors since Airdrie-Bathgate was electrified.

This is the route I have come to sample, using the busy 2121 to Helensburgh Central. The Scottish Executive has invested £375m to create what is now the fourth route between the two cities, and it’s an impressive project (for starters it involved doubling the Bathgate branch). 

The new stations are all substantial places, compliant with the latest disability regulations - with footbridges and lifts, CCTV and PIS systems, as well as plenty of car parking to encourage drivers to stay out of the cities and commute by train instead. 

Bathgate (the former terminus) is especially impressive. Lots of people leave the train here, and I can see by the sheer volume of vehicles that it is well used. In contrast, the EMU stabling sidings are virtually empty - also a good sign.

Each time I visit north of the border on one of these trips, the Scottish have come up with an exciting new project for me to visit - and long may it continue!

Saying goodbye to my final train of the trip at Glasgow Central Low Level, I make my way upstairs into another railway cathedral, and Scotland’s busiest station. There has been no major transformation here, although the station has gained two new platforms, ticket gates and resurfacing of existing platforms.

But there has been one rather special transformation - that of the old Central Hotel, which forms the station’s frontage. Once it was one of Glasgow’s most prestigious hotels, and the haunt of stars such as Frank Sinatra, Roy Rogers and Laurel and Hardy. Sir Winston Churchill even maintained a suite here. But by the 21st century it had become very down at heel. I stayed here during my 2006 trip, and remember it as scruffy and rather rough. 

Now a £20m refurbishment has restored it to its former glory (and four-star status), with wonderful features such as ‘Champagne Central’, a luxurious circular lounge with domes and marble columns overlooking the station concourse. My stylish bedroom pays homage to its roots, with rail-inspired art as part of the decoration. After a week exploring the network, it is a fantastic place to end my trip, and I can thoroughly recommend it.

As I lie down to sleep I reflect on the week, and the massive investment that I have seen going into our nation’s railways. As someone who’s been exploring them for over 42 years, I can honestly say that there’s a new spirit surrounding the industry. 

The railways are no longer seen as the butt of jokes or some anachronism irrelevant to the modern age - exactly the opposite, in fact. They’re seen as vital to our nation’s future. Let’s just hope that new ‘railway age’ continues, and my Senior Citizens railcard will be valid on HS2!

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