Of sleepers and steam, semaphores, signalboxes, and grand old station hotels (Part I)
10 January, 2012
I had The Clash in my head and a BritRail pass tucked in my camera bag as Air Canada flight 868, the "Day Tripper,” touched down at Heathrow on a moonlit winter evening.
There are those who’ll assert that voluntary travel to Britain in a season when the weather is at its coldest and wettest, and daylight but a fleeting seven hours and change between sunrise and set, is pure folly, if not madness. But the call of sleeping car trains departing London six nights a week for Penzance, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen, and Fort William is stronger than any concerns about weather, or light, or other such trivial matters. Throw in working steam, an opportunity to spend a shift in the largest operating mechanical signalbox in the world, and accommodation in grand old station hotels, and the call is irresistible.
The truth of the matter is that Britain, no matter what the season, is irresistible.
The man behind the first class wicket in Paddington Station validated my pass with a sound thump and a stamp that started the clock on an experience beyond all expectations. In seven all-too-short days, I would manage a trifecta of sleepers, throw levers in Severn Junction Signal Box, ride the footplate of Sir Lamiel, a 1925-vintage "King Arthur” class 4-6-0, squeeze through the engine room of an operating Class 37, and rub shoulders — quite literally — with a very much alive English Electric 12CSVT prime mover. I'd follow the footsteps of David P. Morgan on the platforms at Glasgow Central on a rainy night (and on a bitterly cold morning in Inverness), spend a night in the wonderful old Grand Central Hotel (attached to Glasgow Central), and another in the grand dame of all station hotels: London’s magnificently restored St. Pancras Renaissance, part of the legendary Midland Railway station of the same name.
But first, a full English breakfast at the Sloe Bar Café overlooking a Paddington concourse crowded with morning commuters, DMUs, Heathrow Express EMUs, and fleets of Great Western Class 43 HSTs.
In theory, the Day Tripper's mid-evening arrival at Heathrow makes a cross-town connection with the 23:30 Scotland-bound Lowland Sleeper out of Euston achievable if all goes well. It was a tempting idea, but who needs the stress? Besides, padding the schedule with a day in between afforded an opportunity for trainspotting at Banbury with my friend Ian. And that is time well spent.
Shades of the Night Mail!
It’s been called “one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London,” deemed “devoid of any decorative merit,” and dismissed as a “design that should never have left the drawing-board — if, indeed, it was ever on a drawing board.” Walking through the concourse of Euston Station, it’s difficult to find issue with The Times writer Richard Morrison’s oft-quoted assessment of the building born of the still-controversial 1962 demolition of its predecessor in “an officially sanctioned act of vandalism.”
However, the trains that crowd its stark, fluorescent-lit platforms more than compensate for what Euston lacks in character and class. If sleek Virgin Trains Pendolinos and brightly painted London Midland EMUs aren’t enough, one look at the Caledonian Sleeper, and the architectural sins, aesthetic shortcomings and soullessness of Euston are quickly forgotten.
Every night but Saturday, two — that’s right, two — 16-car ScotRail-operated Caledonian Sleepers leave Euston for Scotland. First out, the 2115 Highland Sleeper is actually three trains in one. An English, Welsh & Scottish Class 90 B-B electric pilots the train from Euston to Edinburgh, where the pre-blocked consist is broken into sections for Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William; each one worked by an EMD-design EWS Class 67 loco.
At 23:30, the Lowland Sleeper pulls out of Euston for Edinburgh and Glasgow. The train is split at Carstairs, with its Class 90 and first eight cars carrying on to Glasgow, while a second Class 90 takes the rear eight cars to Edinburgh. Southbound trains reverse the process, with the "Highland" trains combining at Edinburgh and "Lowland" trains uniting at Carstairs for the return trip to Euston.
All of which is to say, that any station — no matter how dreary — that dispatches two 16-car sleepers six nights a week, receives two more on corresponding mornings, and accounts for 10 sleeping car trains in Scotland every night but Saturday can’t be all bad.
So I paid little mind to Euston’s dreary facade, and revelled instead in the sight that greeted me on Platform 15 on a cold January evening: A train of perfectly matched cars in ScotRail blue and white with pink accents stretching the entire length of the train shed and beyond into the night, completely filling Euston’s longest platform. Sixteen cars — only two of them coaches — separated the flashing red marker on the rear of the train from EWS 90020 Collingwood, the brutish 5,000-hp Class 90 electric on the head end. Just for good measure, ScotRail liveried Class 90 No. 90021, the station pilot engine that hauled the consist tail-end-first into the station, stood just beyond the buffers of the rear car.
Sleeping car attendants and stewards waited by open doors to greet those fortunate enough to have booked passage on one of the crown jewels of Britain’s rail passenger network.
“Continental breakfast, or cooked?” inquired Barry, the friendly sleeping car steward who ushered me to my assigned compartment: 9L, in carriage J, an ‘80s-vintage, 13-compartment Mk 3A sleeper built in British Rail’s Derby works as BR 10714. I signed up for a cooked breakfast and stowed my gear. There was time enough before departure to make the ritual walk to the head end and then to adjourn to the cozy leather sofas of the sleeper reception car for a snack of haggis and neeps washed down with a pint of Edinburgh-brewed Deuchars IPA.
As the clock ticked toward the appointed hour, late-arriving passengers hurried past the window, a Virgin Trains Pendolino cruised into the station, and another departed. The thump of slamming doors sounded up and down the train; a shrill blast from the station porter’s whistle, and with a gentle, almost imperceptible tug, we were underway exactly on time.
Speeding past suburban stations and EMUs, past freight yards, through tunnels and over great stone viaducts, we hurtled into the night at an exhilarating pace. They say that hustling the sleepers over the West Coast Main Line puts the Class 90s to the test, pushing the aging motors to the max. If Collingwood’s performance was any indication, it seems apparent that the Crewe-built machines are still more than up to the task.
At the close of a day that began long before dawn, included breakfast at Paddington, trainwatching at Reading, and Banbury (where signalboxes and semaphores guard interlocking plants at both ends of the station), and a couple hundred miles aboard First Great Western HSTs, CrossCountry Voyagers and a Virgin Pendolino, I retired to my compartment with a wee dram of Laphroaig, and every intention of calling it an early night.
But sleep would have wait. Beaming through the window, the light of a full moon illuminated not only the compartment interior, but the entire landscape beyond. I sat transfixed at the window as we sped northward at what felt like every bit of the 110 mph maximum speed of the Class 90 up front. Moonlight danced on the polished rails of the quadruple-tracked WCML and an unforgettable verse crept into my head:
This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient's against her, but she's on time.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.
Forty years ago, I was introduced to Night Mail, the W.H. Auden poem and the legendary 1936 film of the same name for which it was commissioned, in my Grade 12 film class at St. Jerome’s. In 22 minutes and 23 seconds, Harry Watt, and Basil Wright’s documentary on the London, Midland & Scottish Railway’s London-Glasgow West Coast Postal, or “Down Special Travelling Post Office” forever enriched my appreciation of poetry, filmmaking, and British railways.
Stunning aerial and lineside views of LMS Royal Scot 4-6-0 No. 6115, Scots Guardsman, racing northward on the LMS main; signalbox interiors, postal workers loading and sorting mail; heart-stopping footage of mail drops and pickups at speed; night scenes at Crewe, and Glasgow at dawn, the images of Night Mail have been impressed in my memory — frame after wonderful frame — as surely as they were etched in the reels of 16mm stock.
As Collingwood hurried us through the night, the moonlit landscape framed in the compartment window looked for all the world like a scene from Night Mail. And well it should have, for we were racing toward Scotland on the same main line that once hosted the West Coast Postal, not to mention other legendary LMS trains: The Irish Mail, The Merseyside Express, and The Yorkshireman. So I sat at the window for mile after mile, feeling as if I’d realized, in spirit at least, a boyhood dream to ride with Her Majesty’s Royal Mail.
Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston's or Crawford's:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
Night Mail – W.H. Auden
Riding Scotland’s Railway
12 January 2012
The Class 170 ScotRail DMU that carried me back to Edinburgh couldn’t hold a candle — aesthetically at least — to British Railways 45497, the hand-fired Class 5 4-6-0 that spirited DPM from Inverness to Perth, much less Spinion Kop , the three-cylinder Pacific that handled the home stretch from Perth to Waverley Station. But the ride was surely as pleasant and the scenery just as spectacular. I had images conjured by Morgan’s prose running through my mind (and could all but hear the sharp exhaust of a Class 5) as we cruised through the Scottish countryside; labored up the grade to Druimachdair Summit, and accelerated away from station stops in village after village: Aviemore, Kingussie and Dalwhinnie, Blair Atholl, Pitlochry, Ladybank, Markinch and Inverkeithing. We skirted the Firth of Forth through Kinghorn and Burntisland, soared over the breathtaking Forth Bridge at North Queensferry, and made Waverley Station in time to catch a mid-afternoon DMU to Carlisle after a quick snack in the upstairs station lounge.
I stopped off at Citadel Station in Carlisle, where a pair of Class 86 electrics assigned to “Carlisle Standby Ice Breaker” service awaited the call to duty and Erie-built PowerHaul 70005 idled nearby on the Wapping Sidings. All the while, hot mainline action, from Freightliner Class 66s on coal trains; to single-car DMUs drifting in from the Settle-Carlisle and Virgin Pendolinos racing to and from London took the chill off an otherwise frigid afternoon.
Spontaneity is one of the great advantages of having a BritRail pass, and when Virgin Trains 1S65, a Birmingham New Street-Glasgow Central “Super Voyager” service, eased to a stop right beside me, I stepped aboard and found a window seat in Coach E. I had a hot tea, shortbreads and a bitter delivered to my seat before we made Qunitshill some 10 minutes later. We rolled into Glasgow Central at the height of rush hour. By suppertime, I was checked in at the Grand Central Hotel (a beautifully restored 1873-vintage railway hotel that counts Churchill and JFK among its guests) and headed through the rainy streets of Glasgow for beef pie and ale at the Drum & Monkey.
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