A Week on British Railways

This summer I decided to spend some time in Britain visiting my parents. During this time I had a first class Britrailpass which allowed me to travel anywhere I wanted on any train. I worked on British Railways nearly 20 years ago and the changes I noted were very interesting. Why not come with me for a week's jaunt around the island?


My parents live in a suburb of London called Orpington. Join me at the station at 0600 on Monday morning. The booking office received a design award last year for restoration. It looks neat and tidy before the commuter rush hour but they are not used to validating Britrailpasses at that time of day so instead of catching the 0605 to Charing Cross station in London I have to be content with the 0617 to Victoria.

With the pass validated I can now get on any train I please.. I am very flexible as I only have a hotel reservation in Inverness tonight - everything else I can do as I wish. The 0617 electric multiple unit leaves a couple of minutes late and there is a further delay while Victoria finds a platform for us. They have about 18 so you would think ... Anyway I get across London in good time to catch the 0800 from Kings Cross to Aberdeen. This provides the only real disappointment of the week. The Restauant Car closes after breakfast and so I have to. make do with British Rail sandwiches all the way to Aberdeen. As it turns out this is the worst that Brit Rail was able to do to me for the whole week!

We lost about 10 minutes while the engineering department was giving upa weekend occupation in the Huntingdon area. Never mind, these 125 mph trains will soon be able to pick this up. Don't you believe it. They are very tightly timed and with two minute station stops we stayed around eight minutes late all the way to Aberdeen. Do they really travel at 125mph? I timed this one at 28.6 seconds for the mile - close enough for government work! Watch out when two trains travelling at these speeds pass. The resulting jolt from the air pressure build up was strong enough to move my cup and saucer of coffee an inch across the table!

The problem with the Inter City 125's is that they go so fast that you cannot enjoy the scenery. We pass Durham Cathedral and are quickly in Scotland. Edinburgh and the splendid Forth Bridge appear, then we arrive at Aberdeen. There is time to comfortably make the connection to Inverness. This is locomotive hauled, somewhat slower but it does what the timetable promises. I have trouble in understanding the natives but there's no mistaking the enormous tank cars full of Scotch Whisky that are set out on sidings along the line. Must be at least 8000 gallons of the stuff in each one. I arrive in Inverness on time and still have trouble understanding the natives until I realise that they are speaking Gaelic.


Kippers for breakfast. What else when you are in the Highlands? I cash some travellers cheques without any problem except that I receive Scottish bank notes instead of British ones. I'll have to get rid of these before I leave the country - they may be legal tender but you try and use them late at night in an English pub! I catch the 1140 train north to Dingwall. We travel close to the estuary of the River Ness where I have my binoculars at the ready. The herons are interesting to watch and there's always the chance that I will catch a sight of the Loch Ness monster if it were to become seagoing. At Dingwall, I have arranged a visit to the Control Centre where British Railways have installed a computer to control all train movements in the north and west of Scotland. This is now working well and I am grateful that the person in charge is a Sassanach (Englishman) who speaks the same language that I do! Dingwall is a very impressive installation.. There are CRT displays in the cabs of all locomotives and enginemen are given authority to proceed over the radio which is verified visually on the CRT.

From  Dingwall  I start  south,  first to Inverness  and then to Aviemore (hauled by a Welsh locomotive that has a Welsh nameplate!) Aviemore is the home of the preserved line to Boat  of  Garten.  I have some difficulty in finding the way to the station (it is all of 800  yards). Unfortunately the operation is typical   of  many  second rate   preservation projects.  Much  junk lying  around  awaiting restoration  and  the ride being given by a nondescript and, to me, uninteresting, industrial saddle tank.  I have to choose between  riding and eating.  My stomach gets the best of me so I leave a donation, wish them luck, and have a plate of fish and chips with a black pudding thrown in for good luck.  I would have done better to have ridden the train. Tuesday finishes with a ride to Perth where I find a good hotel.


I have arranged to meet my son, Paul, at Edinburgh today. There is a little time to spare so I decide to go the long way to Edinburgh - via Glasgow. The real reason is that the train is a push and pull train in push mode. The Glasgow to Edinburgh train is also in push mode and as we are running into Haymarket I suddenly realise that there is possibility that I can go to North Queensferry to take another look at the Fort Bridge. I get out my travel companion, the 1,488 page Brit Rail timetable, and find out that there is, indeed time to do this before meeting Paul at Edinburgh.No wonder my bag feels heavy - timetable weighs as much a my clothes! We spend that afternoon looking at the castle and take a commuter train ou to Stirling for the night. 


Stirling proves very interesting and we decide to stay there a second night. All the travelling we do is twenty miles or so to visit the beautiful cathedral at Dunblane.


Paul decides to go back to London and it is time for me to visit Wales. I quickly get to Glasgow where I change stations. First time in Glasgow Central and first time under the wires on this trip. I catch the Royal Scot to Carlisle, just over the border in England. These trains seem slow with their maximum speed of 100 mph. I have always wanted to travel over the Settle and Carlisle line with its very impressive viaducts. The line was threatened with abandonment although it now has a more secure future. British Railways supplied a real gem in the shape of the last class 40 diesel. It has been renumbered back to its original number, D200, and painted in the original colour scheme my favourite green with the lion and wheel emblem. The slow revving engine seemed as if it were about to die but it held out all the way to Leeds.

The Settle and Carlisle line was all that I had expected. It was raining all the way over the Pennines and there was a very high wind. It was bleak and dreary. At one time some years ago the wind was so high that it caught a steam locomotive riding a turntable and kept spinning it around. The enginemen couldn't stop it and there were fears about the centre bearing - they also needed the engine! In the end a quick thinking foreman put ashes on the rail. The turntable was then fenced in and remained so until the end of steam. I cannot think why the line shouldn't be closed. At least I have travelled over it but resolve not to do so again.

There is just time in Leeds to cash a travellers cheque and to get rid of my Scottish bank notes and then catch the train to Llandudno Junction behind a venerable class 45. Manchester is dreary in the drizzle but things improve as we cross into the principality of Wales. Llandudno Junction is reached on time and there is just a short ride on a new Sprinter into Llandudno. Some weld has been put on to the rails at the bufferstops. First time I have seen a rumble strip on a railway.


An easy train riding day today. I take the diesel multiple unit up the valley through Betws y Coed to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The weather is fine and sunny. I don't believe my luck will hold as Blaenau is one of the wettest places in the UK. We enter the two mile tunnel on the approach to Blaenau and I am sure that it will be raining on the other side. Incredibly the sun is shining. The town still looks bleak as it is, in effect, built in a grey slate quarry. There is a joint station at Blaenau. Joint with the Festiniog Railway which is two foot gauge. The FR provides a connection between BR at Blaenau and the BR Cambrian Coast line at Minffordd. Very soon an oil burning Welsh quarry locomotive arrives and takes me to Portmadoc. The scenery is beautiful as I relax in the narrow gauge observation car and enjoy a pint of draft beer.

The Festiniog Railway is one of the better preserved railways and a real treasure. I take my time before travelling back to Blaenau to catch the train back to Llandudno. The FR and BR tracks are side by side in Blaenau and both trains are due out at the same time. What a sight. A Fairlie type double ended locomotive built in the FR works in 1979 (yes, that is only seven year's ago) and a new BR Sprinter, both ready to race for the first hundred yards or so before the lines diverge. Unfortunately BR was a little late and so there was no race. The new Sprinter is not what it seems. It is in fact a railbus with a wheel on each corner. This gives a very unusual ride on the indifferent track and the long wheelbase causes the wheels to squeal unmercifully. There are some good points such as the air operated doors and the automatic couplers which couple up the air and multiple unit controls without anyone having to go in between (providing you are on straight track!). I get out at Llandudno and curse Brit Rail for not putting a glass partition behind the driver.


My last day. I have a walk along the sands and plan my route. Being Sunday I should be prepared to be delayed somewhat. The only objective is to get to Orpington this evening. I haven't yet travelled over the Great Western so the route is not straightforward. I take a multiple unit to Llandudno Junction and a locomotive hauled train to Chester. The arrival is on the advertised which gives me time to eat and get a drink. I have never travelled over the line to Shrewsbury via Wrexham so I take the Sprinter. It is noontime and the sun is shining brightly on the beautiful green countryside. At Chirk I despair of seeing any sign of the Glyn Valley Tramway until I notice a slate plaque set into a road overbridge inscribed "Glyn Valley Tramway 1873 - 1935". A very nice touch.

Shrewsbury is quiet. The sun is shining as it always used to when I was a child. I wander down to the end of the platform to gaze at the very large signal box and then I have to choke back my emotions as I realise that the signals are of the lower quadrant type. Only the GWR had these and yes there are the cast iron filials on top of the masts. I realise that I feel at home.

The train to Newport arrives behind the surprise of the week - a Southern class 33. The trip will not be quick but who cares. It is Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining, the countryside is the best and I am home. What more could I want? We stop at all stations. Craven Arms, Church Stretton, Ludlow, Leominster. All beautiful little towns. I doze off. This is the country of those very English composers Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Hereford and Pontypool pass as I dream the Enigma Variations and the Tallis Fantasia. Newport brings me back to reality. It always was a morbid, dirty, place and twenty years hasn't improved it, except that the road bridge into the town has been painted.

I help a couple of Belgian ladies find their way to the London train which Brit Rail continue to conceal as the Paddington train. My Canadian french seems to be adequate for this. My last main line trip is the Intercity 125 to Paddington. The first class section is almost empty and I can choose a single seat facing the front. I buy a bottle of red wine to celebrate my return to home rails. I only just stopped myself from saying that I didn't want domestic! Severn Tunnel Junction and we are in the big hole. It is quite surprising that the brakes go on as we go down into the 4 1/2 mile tunnel. I can remember the time when, on a steam tank engine, we would go into the tunnel like a bat out of hell to gain as much momentum to get out of the other side. I went in one time on an engine with such a green fire that I wondered if we would make it.  Remembering how scared I was I raise my glass to those who work in this wet hole every day. There are a few derelict diesels being cut up at the shortly-to-be-closed Swindon Works. How can they close the holy of holies? At Didcot the Great Western Society is shutting up shop after another successful steaming day. There are a couple of glimpses of green engines with copper capped stacks, Reading is just as busy as it was when I was Assistant Station Manager. I had to contend with 350 trains a day. They handle more than that now and the trains travel faster.

Paddington is ready to receive us and we get in on time. There is a green diesel on a train about to leave.. It is named "Great Western" and carries the brass GWR coat of arms. There is another surprise in the form of another green diesel. This one is named "Sir Edward Elgar" and also carries the GWR brass coat of arms. Coincidence? I like to think not.

The Southern electric, now known as Network South East, gets me back to Orpington in good time to complete a successful week. In all I have not been more than ten minutes late on any run and have not missed a connection. Brit Rail certainly did what the timetable said they would. I can only conclude that the railway is doing a better job now than before. What about the cost? The 1700+ miles, first class wherever available, cost just over 10 cents a mile. I think it was a bargain. The cost would have come down if I had spent all of the time travelling but there were three days with the emphasis upon sightseeing.

Thank you British Railways for arranging to have "Great Western" and "Sir Edward Elgar" waiting for me at Paddington. It was a good way to end an excellent nostalgic week.

Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, November 1986.

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