PAUL BIGLAND kicks off his latest biennial three-part All-Line Rail Rover trip by visiting rural routes and newly electrified sections of track in the North West
“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.”
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
“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!”
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
Northern 319383 prepares to depart the newly electrified Blackpool North on September 4. Despite developing a reputation for giving short shrift to photographers and railway enthusiasts, station staff gave Paul Bigland a warm reception.
A heavily loaded pair of Chiltern Railways Class 168s disgorge passengers at London Marylebone during an engineer’s possession at Wembley. It forced hundreds of extra passengers, including Paul Bigland, to travel from Birmingham to Manchester via the Chiltern Main Line.