Rail Rover pt 3
PAUL BIGLAND visits old haunts in South Wales, before concluding his latest Rail Rover by travelling on routes between London and the Midlands that offer a mixture of familiar landmarks, new infrastructure and a changing landscape
PAUL BIGLAND heads to Wales and the Midlands for the final instalment of his “weirdest and wackiest” All-Line Rail Rover.
Having had several early starts, Day 6 begins in a more relaxed fashion with me catching Great Western Railway’s 0921 from Par towards Paddington.
I arrive at the station in time to snap a few pictures and observe my fellow passengers. The mix of young women with prams, elderly couples and tourists with suitcases suggests to me that the railways aren’t seen as unsafe by many, and my view is confirmed when I board the lead set of a pair of Class 800s. After we depart, I do a quick tour and reckon the train is at half-capacity.
Over the PA, the Train Manager makes the usual announcement about mask wearing, and also mentions that the rear set is less busy if people want to swap sets. I have already settled into an airline seat, so am happy to stay where I am and leave the table bays for couples, even though it would take several hours retracing my steps to Taunton.
We weave our way through Cornwall without apparent effort. The Class 800s are a lot quieter than the HSTs they’ve replaced, due to the sealed vestibule doors and modern corridor connections. They glide up and down the Devon and Cornwall banks, which you wouldn’t know existed.
It’s a far cry from a previous trip on a Class 150, where the set wheezed and vibrated so much as it staggered up Dainton Bank that I thought it was going to shake itself to bits!
I eschew the idea of plugging in my laptop to take notes and resort to old-fashioned pen and paper instead, so that I can enjoy more of the view and not be distracted by bashing a keyboard.
In contrast, a teenage girl opposite spends much of her time on her phone live-streaming to her friends, although I’m not sure how much of a market there is for sentences where the word ‘like’ or commentary on how much battery charge she has left makes up 75% of the content! It’s easy to see why the advent of smartphones, 4G and massive data allowances killed off the concept of the ‘ Volo’ coach!
At Liskeard, we pass a ‘Castle’ Class HST which seems a lot quieter than my service. A handful of folk join us, but not enough to make the train feel uncomfortable.
Having chosen a seat on the right-hand side of the train, I am ideally placed to admire the views at St Germans where the rivers Tiddy and Lynher join. The railway crosses the former on a viaduct, which provides an excellent viewing platform.
Soon afterwards, we cross the more famous river and bridge, the Royal Albert and the Tamar, where we take our leave of Cornwall. The nature of the waterborne traffic also changes. Tiny yachts give way to the massive grey shapes of shipping built for an entirely different purpose - warships that are moored at Plymouth, our next stop.
Although it’s quieter than in pre-COVID days, a respectable number of passengers are waiting for us to arrive. Despite the numbers who alight, we are noticeably busier on departure. As we pass, I am interested to see how lively Laira depot is - many roads are full, with stored HST vehicles or active GWR and CrossCountry sets.
Judging by the new voice over the PA, we’ve had a crew change in Plymouth - the warning about masks and the apology for lack of catering is made in a chirpy Cockney twang rather than a West Country burr.
Our next stops at Totnes and Newton Abbot add to our complement, but the train doesn’t feel uncomfortable and my fellow passengers are well-behaved.
The trip from here to Exeter is without doubt one of my favourite UK rail journeys, as the railway hugs the Teign estuary until reaching the sea at Dawlish, before then following the River Exe inland.
There’s something special about tidal estuaries, due to the abundance of wildlife and the ever-changing scenes as the water ebbs or rises. Throw in some moody skies and filtered sunlight, and the views can resemble a painting by Turner - only you don’t have to go to the National Gallery to see this, it’s brought to your seat on a train.
The landscape isn’t the only thing that changes. The sea wall at Dawlish has undergone some man-made interventions, with Network Rail in the midst of an
£ 80 million scheme to make the railway weatherproof for the future.
Work lasts from 2019-22, but the sculpted concrete wave recurve panels are already in place along Marine Parade, protecting both the railway and the unwary pedestrian from the massive waves that regularly break over the line at this point. The new sea wall may stop the waves from the sea, but not from the children who enthusiastically greet our train as it passes. It’s great to see this ages-old habit is still going strong.
Despite its nature as a busy student town and junction, Exeter is quieter than Plymouth. As we leave, I eye the nearby Exeter brewery with its neat row of beer-garden benches. It
The new sea wall may stop the waves from the sea, but not from the children who enthusiastically greet our train as it passes. It’s great to see this ages-old habit is still going strong.