Rail Rover part 2
In the second part of his latest Rail Rover, PAUL BIGLAND criss-crosses the capital to discover the changing face of London’s railways before heading west over newly electrified sections towards Bristol and Cardiff
In the second part of his latest Rail Rover odyssey, PAUL BIGLAND discovers the changing face of London’s railways.
Day 4 begins with me making a mental note: I will be away from home for the next few nights, so I must not forget that I will now be carrying two bags, not one. (On a previous Rover, I managed to leave a suitcase on a train!)
My day starts on the 0912 from Halifax to Leeds via Bradford Interchange, another section of line which is being resignalled this year. Until recently, there was no intermediate station on the line between the two - now there’s a substantial two-platformed affair at Low Moor (opened on April 2 2017). It’s used by an hourly Northern rail service and by Grand Central, which means the locals have gone from having no station at all to having a direct train to London!
At Bradford Interchange we reverse to gain the Leeds line, so I have a second chance to see the work that Network Rail has been doing to expand capacity here, laying new track to avoid conflicting movements. An old Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway signal box (one of the few surviving features of the old station, demolished in 1972) still controls Interchange, although it is due to be decommissioned by the end of this year.
Rolling eastwards we reach Leeds, where I change trains. Whatever time of day I pass through here, the station is always a hive of activity. It’s also congested, which means it’s quite common to get held on the approaches waiting for a platform to become available, despite the fact that the station has 17 of them!
As the third busiest station outside of London, Leeds handles nearly 30 million passengers a year. Due to physical constraints there’s no room for expansion, so the arrival of HS2 can’t come soon enough to free up capacity for expanded local services. I can’t help feeling an earlier opportunity was lost when the Leeds tram scheme was cancelled, as a tram/train-style operation could have been a real gain for both station and city.
Leeds is served by a wide variety of trains - from the humble Pacer right through to the East Coast racehorses in the shape of the LNER Class 91s and HSTs. Now this variety is expanded by the addition of ex-ScotRail Class 170s, cascaded to Northern and being used on the Harrogate loop.
My train forward is on what has been a familiar sight since 2002: a four-car CrossCountry Voyager. Not untypically, it is running nine minutes late. The reason given is congestion around York, a problem that seems endemic to various sections of the network nowadays. Regular travellers such as myself bear this with a weary stoicism, but it turns planning journeys that require making connections into a bit of a lottery, adding to the stress of travelling and damaging the railway’s reputation while begging the question: “If so much money is being spent on improving and expanding the network, why is punctuality getting worse”?
It’s a question I ponder as I sip my coffee and window-gaze en route to my next destination: Derby, yet another station that is undergoing a massive change due to investment. A 79-day partial blockade is in place, which means that my train is diverted via the Erewash valley - past Toton and the site of the HS2 station for the East Midlands - before approaching Derby from the south along Trent East curve and the Spondon line.
The complex logistics of blockading Derby are worth an article of their own. The station is a major junction at the heart of the CrossCountry and East Midlands Trains networks, and it’s an important freight route. It’s also a vital servicing and maintenance centre. Before the partial blockade could begin, new stabling and servicing facilities had to be built or expanded at several locations, including Barrow Hill and Nottingham. It’s a tribute to all involved that the blockade has been running smoothly and to time, with disruption to travel minimised.
Stepping off my train onto a rebuilt platform, I am momentarily lost - the changes are that profound. It’s only when I wander along the platform to admire the work that I realise I am standing on what was the old bay platform used by Crewe trains. To my right is an entirely new island platform that matches perfectly with the ‘old’ station. That’s when the scale of the investment in today’s railway hits home. The ‘old’ station only dates from 2009!
I can’t help feeling an earlier opportunity was lost when the Leeds tram scheme was cancelled, as a tram/train-style operation could have been a real gain for both station and city.
Now even the track layout is unrecognisable.
While in Derby I pop over to Etches Park, where East Midlands Trains is unveiling its latest train - a refurbished HST made up of ex-Grand Central power cars and a mix of GC and Great Western Railway Mk 3 coaches. It looks very smart, and the mix of seating should provide something for everyone’s tastes.
Moving on from Derby, I catch another CrossCountry service as far as Birmingham New Street. The train’s final destination (Guildford) reminds me just how far-flung the effects of blockades such as Derby can be.
I don’t know if the blockade has persuaded fewer people to travel, but I have no problem finding a seat on the four-car Voyager and settle in to enjoy the trip (non-stop).
As we speed through Water Orton I catch a glimpse of a gaggle of enthusiasts, cameras held ready to capture a passing freight train. Passing the old Fort Dunlop on the outskirts of the city, I am surprised to see that it’s now luxury flats, which seems an unlikely use considering it’s so close to the elevated M6 motorway.
Next up is Washwood Heath, another location that will change forever with the imminent arrival of HS2. It’s going to be the site of the Phase 1 depot and stabling sidings - soon, the rusting and rotting wagons dumped in the old yards will be replaced by modern, high-speed trains.
Despite the claims of HS2 ‘antis’ that the project is ‘London-centric’, it’s obvious to anyone visiting the Midlands that it’s Birmingham-centric! Passing the old Curzon Street station on our approach into New Street, I can see the archaeological work is in full swing. A huge covered area is being constructed that will protect the excavations and exhumations from the elements (and curious eyes). As construction progresses, rail passengers will have grandstand views of the work.
Alighting at New Street on the cusp of rush hour, I take a quick wander around the revamped concourse. The station seems to be one of those Marmite experiences - people
A nine-car Great Western Railway Intercity Express Train approaches Reading with a service to London Paddington on September 6. The overhead line equipment is currently energised as far as Didcot, and has been described by Paul Bigland as “butch” in its design.