13 January, 2012
I’ll sleep when I’m dead
It don’t matter if I get a little tired
I’ll sleep when I’m dead
– Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon was playing in my head as I hurried through the concourse of Glasgow Central, the damp cold of a pre-dawn Glasgow morning helping shake the effects of too many long days and short nights. I had better things to do than sleep: a plan to be back at Carlisle for first light, an appointment at the signalbox in Shrewsbury, and a reservation on the 23:45 Night Riviera from London Paddington to Penzance. The Virgin Pendolino waiting to depart on Track 1 looked like a pretty good way to start the day.
Say what you will about the glory days of conventional passenger trains, I’m not sure rail travel — busy corridor rail travel anyway — can get any better than watching the sun rise over a frost-cloaked Scottish landscape and breakfasting on smoked salmon, eggs and toast while a Virgin Class 390 Pendolino hurtles you along the West Coast Main Line at better than 100 mph with barely a ripple in your tea cup. I had to force myself to keep to the plan and detrain at Carlisle.
While I questioned the wisdom of giving up the comfort of the Pendolino for the cold platforms of Carlisle, the move paid off within minutes. Two minutes to be precise. The Euston-bound Pendolino had barely slid out of sight when a Class 37 poked its distinctive face around the curve at the north end of the Citadel trainshed.
Once the quintessential dual-service British diesels, the Class 37s (originally designated English Electric Type 3) are getting long in the tooth. British Railways took delivery 309 of them between 1960 and 1965; dozens survive in preservation, but no more than a handful remain in mainline service. The pug-faced, C-C, 1,750-hp machines are cult favorites, and drifting into Citadel Station with just a single Class 66 dead-in-tow, Direct Rail Services 37610 T.S. (Ted) Cassaday 5.5.61 – 6.4.08 was about to remind anyone within earshot exactly why.
After easing past track workers at the top end of the platforms, DRS 37610 tiptoed into the station giving every indication that it would come to a stop. But the driver would have none of that. With a look of determination and almost theatric timing, he widened out the throttle as the Cassaday came alongside a group of spotters gathered on Platform 3. The guttural English Electric 12CSVT growl that earned the Class 37s their “tractor” nickname reverberated through the trainshed as 37610 sounded off with an authority that belied the fact the Class celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010 … and that nearly that many years had passed since DRS 37610 emerged from the Darlington works of Robert Stephenson & Hawthorns as British Railways D6881 on October 21, 1963.
A dozen more trains called on Carlisle while I waited for the next London-bound Pendolino: coal trains, and engineering trains, a northbound Tesco intermodal in the charge of Stobart-branded Class 92 Bart the Engine, Virgin Super Voyagers and delightful little Pacer DMUs scooted about. The action never stopped, but it paled in comparison to the opening act. Echoes of that thrashing big-tractor English Electric sound were still ringing in my head as Pendolino 390027 Jessica Varnish whisked me out of Carlisle.
Tailoring my journey more for train-watching than direct transit, I changed to a Virgin Super Voyager at Warrington Bank Quay and connected with an Arriva Trains Wales service at Crewe.
Arriva 175108, the Class 175/1 DMU that took me from Crewe to Shrewsbury, wasn’t much to look at. But the little three-car train was good solid transportation, British-built (by Alstom at the former Metro-Cammel works in Birmingham), and packed to the gunwales. Immediately south of Crewe station, we swung off the electrified, high-density, multi-tracked West Coast Main Line, slipped past lines of stored and active Class 37s at the DRS Gresty Lane depot, and into the picturesque Shropshire countryside.
To the whir of under-floor 450-hp Cummins diesels, we trundled along the Welsh Marches Line, a onetime London and North Western Railway route still governed by semaphores and signalboxes. We called at Nantwich and Whitchurch, and zipped past signalboxes and manned crossing boxes at Prees and Wem. With every mile, the 175108 seemed less a modern conveyance and more a robin’s-egg-blue time machine. By the time we eased to a stop at Shrewsbury station, I was immersed in a sense of history.
Shrewsbury cast a spell of its own. The Tudor-style station, a marvelous grade II listed structure built by the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway in 1848, was crowded with passengers. DMU trains darted about in all directions negotiating a maze of trackage — diamonds and crossovers, platform tracks and passing loops — populated by a forest of semaphore signals. Presiding over the north end of the station, Crewe Junction signalbox, a 4-storey, 120-lever box built in 1902-03. To the south, situated within the triangular junction of four converging lines stood the holy grail: Constructed in 1903-04 for the Shewsbury and Hereford Railway (jointly owned by the London & North Western and Great Western Railways), the 3-storey, 180-lever Severn Bridge Junction signalbox is the largest operating mechanical signalbox in the world.
The soft ting of telegraph bells hammering out code and the crash of slamming levers beckoned Network Rail signalling manager Phil Lucas and me as we climbed the narrow staircase to the upper floor of Severn Bridge. Working afternoon shift, signallers Darren Peake and Paul Johnson were setting the route for a northbound coal train as we reached the operating floor at the top of the stairs.
It’s a two-man job working the 180-lever LNW tumbler-interlocking frame that extends the length of the 95-foot long operating room and controls the southern end of Shrewsbury station, Severn Bridge Junction, and English Bridge Junction. Responsibility for the 180 levers (91 of which are in use) is divided roughly in half. Darren has the “early end,” the 44 levers controlling station trackage south of Crewe Junction; Paul has the “late end,” governing movements to and from “fringe” signalboxes: Sutton Bridge to the southwest, and Abbey Foregate to the east.
We had barely enough time for introductions before Freightliner 66511 came dragging past with the 6M04, Portbury Coal Terminal EWS-Rugely Power Station loads. Coal-burdened Heavy Haul wagons were still groaning by as the next train, a London Midland Class 170 working the 1J18 Birmingham New Street-Shrewsbury service pulled in.
And so it went into the evening, a non-stop parade of passenger trains, coal trains, steel trains and light engine moves that included an Arriva Class 67 on a route-learning run to Crewe, and a pair of Network Rail Class 97s (re-assigned Class 37s) running to the Derby RTC for fuel and exam. Somehow amidst the commotion, there was time for tea and cake courtesy of Darren and Paul.
I could have stayed all night, entranced by the complexities and wonders of Victorian age technology and an ancient art still capable of moving some 300 trains a day safely and efficiently. And I might just have done so, save for a reservation on the Night Riviera out of Paddington at fifteen minutes before midnight.
“Please look after this bear. Thank you.”
Paddington Station, built by the Great Western Railway in 1854, wears its history, its heritage and its heart on its sleeve. Evidence of the station’s GWR origins and rich history are everywhere, in heraldry forged in iron and etched in stone throughout the great terminal, in the statue of designer (and GWR chief engineer) Isambard Kingdom Brunel that looks out over the concourse from its pedestal adjacent to Platform 1, in the war memorial (“In honour of those who served in the World Wars … 3312 men and women of the Great Western Railway gave their lives for King and Country”), and in the small bronze statue of Michael Bond’s beloved Paddington Bear.
The sole surviving overnight train timetabled out of Paddington, the Night Riviera upholds a Great Western tradition that traces to the introduction of GWR sleeping car services in 1877. It’s an honour that does not go unrecognized by train operator First Great Western. The four Class 57/6 locomotives assigned to the Paddington-Penzance Night Riviera services are christened with names once carried by legendary GWR Castle class 4-6-0 express passenger engines.
Resplendent in Great Western green, adorned with GWR-style nameplates, number plates and coats of arms, the “station pilot” that brought the night’s 9-car Riviera consist into Paddington was none other than FGW 57604, Pendennis Castle. A celebrity among 57s, Pendennis (whose namesake 4-6-0 survives in preservation) was given its splendid coat of lined Brunswick green in 2010 to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Great Western Railway.
On the head-end of the train, 57602 Restormel Castle — attired in conventional First Group blue — idled in anticipation of our booked 23:45 departure for Penzance.
The familiar but foreign chant emanating from the classic Crewe-built carbody of Restormel Castle served as a reminder that the 57s were created in a Brush Traction rebuild program that saw elderly Class 47s gutted, rewired and re-engined, trading their original Sulzer power plants for EMD 12-645F3B engines.
I settled into my compartment in time for a nightcap, watching HSTs and DMUs come and go over a fine glass of Cornish born and brewed St. Austell Tribute “the ale of Cornwall.” The station porter’s whistle sounded a shrill blast, doors slammed shut, and with a gentle tug, we were underway. I looked out as the terminal and the city slid past the window. We flashed past ancient suburban stations and London Underground trains, past HSTs and aggregate trains. All the while, the crisp sheets and soft pillows of Berth 7L beckoned. But I stayed at the window through Reading and beyond.
I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
It don’t matter if I get a little tired, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
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