16 January, 2012
The long way 'round
Early morning commuters were huddling on the frozen platforms at Carstairs when we rolled into the station at a few minutes after six. The Edinburgh and Glasgow sections of the Caledonian Sleeper part company at Carstairs in a maneuver accomplished with remarkable efficiency. With a gentle nudge, ScotRail-liveried 90019 coupled to the back of the train, voices rose out of the darkness as brake lines and couplings were done up. Another nudge, and before I knew it, we were underway — in the opposite direction. The move quickly made sense as we clattered through Carstairs East Junction and curved onto the line to Edinburgh while the front portion of the train carried on to Glasgow with 90036 and the first eight cars. Thirty minutes later, I stepped from the comfort of the Sleeper into an icy Edinburgh dawn, and just as quickly retreated onto an East Coast train ready to leave for London.
They’re the backbone of high-speed service on the East Coast Main Line: 30 push-pull, fixed-formation trainsets composed of a 9-car rake of Mk 4 stock bracketed by a Class 91 electric on one end and a Mk 4 DVT (a cab-equipped “driving brake van”) on the other. East Coast 82201, a Metropolitan-Cammell built DVT still in Great North Eastern Railway blue, stood ready to depart with the 07.30 service to King’s Cross. There was no time for second thoughts, I boarded the first car just as the station porter’s whistle sounded. Any reservations I had about giving Edinburgh the short shrift were quickly dispatched as I enjoyed a full English breakfast with tea and apple-rhubarb juice while speeding along the ECML and watching sunrise over the Channel.
No one has ever asked me to compose a personal top-ten list of trainspotting locations, but if they did, Doncaster, 155 miles, 77 chains north of London, King’s Cross on the East Coast Main Line, would be right at the top. “Donny,” as they call it, holds mythic status among generations of spotters. Those of a certain age recall jotting engine numbers of Gresley-design V2 "Green Arrow" 2-6-2s, Thompson B1 4-6-0s and Peppercorn Pacifics in notebooks, or underlining entries in Ian Allen Locospotters books; thrilling to the passage of the “down Elizabethan,” the up Heart of Middlothian, the Yorkshire Pullman, Flying Scotsman and Leeds-KX expresses; copping A4 “streaks” by the number, and in later years, Deltics, and English Electric and Brush Type 4s. Donny, they said, was the place to be.
The days of spotters crowding the St. James bridge and shed bashing the Doncaster Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Works (better known by railwaymen and locals as “The Plant,”) are history. But by current standards, Donny is still the place to be, and that’s precisely where I was headed.
Doncaster offers an intoxicating mix of volume, variety, and speed. From the moment my feet hit the platform, the traffic was near constant, often with two, three, four, or even more trains in sight at the same time. East Coast Class 91-hauled Mk 4/DVT trains and diesel-powered Class 43 HST sets seared through the station on express tracks and stopping trains called at Doncaster’s five platforms. Freights — intermodal, coal, cement, and engineering trains — rolled through behind Canadian-built Class 66 EMDs in the colours of EWS and DB Schenker, Freightliner, and GBRf. Class 321 EMUs shuttled back and forth to Leeds and DMUs came and went on streetcar headway: CrossCountry Voyagers with trains linking Scotland and points as far west as Penzance; Grand Central Class 180 Adelentes and HSTs working West Yorkshire services between King’s Cross and Bradford; First Group Class 185 Desiros and Class 170 Turbostars with TransPennine trains between Manchester and Cleethorpes, and a steady parade of Northern Class 142 and 144 Pacers, 150s, 156s, and 158s handling services to Adwick, Lincoln, Sheffield, Scunthorpe, Hull, Bridlington, Scarborough, and elsewhere.
There are those who dismiss or even scowl at DMUs in general and the little four-wheeled Class 142, 143, and 144 Pacers in particular. I am not among the detractors. I long ago learned that a train — even one that might be little more than a bus on flanged steel wheels — is better than no train at all. And anyway, the Pacers are delightful machines that scoot about to the off-beat clatter of single-axle wheel sets and the gentle purr of 2,100-rpm Cummins diesels, fulfilling timetabled services on low-density routes that might not have survived without them.
Doncaster is home to a small group of increasingly rare Class 08 0-6-0 diesel switchers that occasionally venture into the small yard adjacent to the station. They’re assigned to shunting duties at the Wabtec Rail rolling stock maintenance and repair facility that occupies part of the once-great Doncaster Works.
The birthplace of thousands of steam, diesel, and electric locomotives, and thousands more passenger carriages and goods wagons, the Doncaster shop was opened by the Great Northern Railway in 1853 and grew to become one of the main workshops of the London and North Eastern Railway. The Plant built railway locomotives for more than a century: from its first, GNR 0-4-2s completed in 1867, to its most famous, the legendary LNER Gresley A4 Pacifics, to its last, 50 British Rail Class 58 Co-Co diesel-electrics turned out in 1987. (An asterisk on the Doncaster production rolls, the shop built an industrial diesel-hydraulic locomotive for quarry operator Tilcon in 1994.)
The 08s that shunt The Plant are amongst the last old school vestiges in evidence at Doncaster. Watching the ancient beasts at work — side rods flailing, spoked drivers a-blur — offers a fascinating distraction during the time between trains. Not that there’s much of it. My notes from just over three-and-a-half hours at Donny include some 98 trains, a tally that does not include the frequent Leeds shuttles or trains that passed during the few times I stopped into the station café to warm up over a cappuccino.
Make that 99 trains … at 14.23, a Grand Central Class 180 went ripping past as I boarded a southbound East Coast train to continue my journey.
After a short interlude at Peterborough, my third East Coast train of the day eased to a stop at King’s Cross at 17.19, ending what had in effect been a 17-hour, 35-minute odyssey from one London station to another. Euston to King’s Cross via Edinburgh, York, Doncaster, and Peterborough: sometimes getting there is all the fun.