Thursday, 26 May 2016

Bashing the Cumbrian coast with classic traction

My Northern rail pass expires at the end of June so I continue to try to make the best use of it while I have it. Now that Manchester - Barrow trains come under the new Northern franchise (they used to be Trans Pennine Express) the Cumbrian Coast has become more accessible. Chris and I did this route on the 'Settle & Carlisle Express' special train in September 2013 (click here to see the blog report) but the weather was poor and I wondered if I could do it in better weather using my pass.

An added incentive is that Northern has hired-in two trains of ex-BR Mk2 coaches hauled in push-pull mode by classic Class 37 Diesel electric locomotives from Direct Rail Services for use on the Cumbrian Coast. A check of the timetable confirmed the journey all the way around the coast to Carlisle and back could not be done in a single day. It would be possible to do the Coast south to north, and return direct from Carlisle but that would entail using non-Northern trains for which my pass is not valid.

I decided to bite the bullet and include a night in the delightful town of Ravenglass in my itinerary, which would allow me to do the Coast route both ways, and combine the outing with a trip on the Ravenglass & Eskdale narrow gauge steam railway.

The itinerary began with the 07:56 train from Wilmslow to the Airport, the 08:25 train from the Airport to Preston (a Blackpool North train), pick up the first 37-hauled train at Preston departing at 10:04.

Please click on any picture for a larger image.

37 409 'Lord Hinton' could be heard growling away on the front of its train over on platform five at Preston as I left the Sprinter (which had brought me from Manchester Airport) on platform one 

We left Preston eight minutes down. Here is the interior of the ex-BR Mk2 coach I was in. I was seated in the first row of seats in the train, back to the engine, and with the vestibule windows open on this warm morning 409's throaty roar was more than apparent as we powered north on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) - especially as its supercharged exhaust rebounded off overbridges! 

Over the River Lune at Lancaster 

We left the WCML at Carnforth and headed for Barrow. Here's a view back towards Arnside and its viaduct, which we have just passed over. 

Superb weather today with clear visibility; the nuclear power station at Heysham dominates the far shore of Morcambe Bay  

Looking north towards the Lake District hills 

Heysham power station recedes as we head west, stopping at all intermediate stations. Acceleration away from station stops was brisk, the big brute of a loco hardly breaking sweat with just four coaches on  

We'll soon be a bit closer to those Lake District hills 

Our eight minute deficit off Preston had increased to ten minutes by the time we reached Barrow to change trains. This connection only allowed six minutes, so it was fortunate that the onward connection was held for our arrival. This second train also comprised four ex-BR Mk2s, hauled by 37 402, that 'Large Logo' 37 with all-yellow ends and an oversize BR 'coming and going' logo on each side, though I would not actually see which 37 was on our train until I saw it at Carlisle. 

The line swings inland north of Barrow to follow the south coast of the Duddon Estuary to Foxfield (where this view was recorded), before following its northern shore to Millom 

Heading north up the Cumbrian Coast, the chimneys and towers of Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing plant begin to dominate the skyline. Early in my career with SPL I spent some time at Sellafield commissioning the fruits of my project, our in-house produced computer control systems for the new fuel storage facility, Pond Five, for the THORPE reprocessing plant.

North of Sellafiled, at Braystones, there is quite a community of bungalows strung along the beach between the sea and the railway line   

It looks as though building is still going on! 

One of these properties was visited by Paul Merton on his recent TV programme about Request Railway Stations 

St Bees head, known among aviators as the closest place on the mainland to the Isle of Man; useful for those of us who don't trust single-engined aeroplanes over water! 

St Bees Priory Church. The railway cuts inland at St Bees, to pass east of St Bees Head. 

North of St Bees Head the railway rejoins the coast at Whitehaven. This next headland is at Workington 

The coast near Workington 

Harrington harbour, south of Workington

I noticed this piece of railway history as we approached Carlisle along the former Maryport & Carlisle Railway - "Maryport & Carlisle Goods and Coal Depot" 

At the other end of the train to the locomotive is a DBSO (Driving Brake Second Open). This enables the driver to drive the locomotive remotely from the DBSO's cab so there is no need for the locomotive to 'run round' the train. The driver simply swaps from the loco to the DBSO and can then drive the train back the way it has come with the loco on the rear, known as 'push pull' operation. 

These DBSOs started life as Mk2F Brake Open Standard coaches, and were converted for push-pull operation on the Glasgow - Edinburgh services. When these were replaced by new trains, the DBSOs were transferred to Liverpool St - Norwich services. Eventually they were replaced on the Anglian route by DVTs (Driving Van Trailers) cascaded form Virgin Trains WCML stock when this was replaced by Pendolinos. Some were later acquired by DRS, including this one, 9704, pictured at our brief stay in Carlisle.

57 302 of DRS at Carlisle. 57s started life as Brush Type 4 diesel electric locomotives in the 1960s. Some 47s were rebuilt with more up to date engines and equipment as 57s. 

The locomotive that hauled us from Barrow and will propel us back down the coast, 37 402 'Large Logo' 37 named 'Stephen Middlemore'

After a few minutes at Carlisle we set off back down the coast again. Visibility was even better by now; I have never seen the Isle of Man from the UK mainland as clearly as this. 

Looking inland to the lakeland hills 

Sellafield is gradually losing its trademark 'twin towers', the ventilator shafts with filter housings on top for the original Windscale reactor, built for plutonium production for 'The Bomb', and source of the devastating fire of 1957. The towers are being demolished, as is that other characteristic of the site, the spherical outer casing of the experimental AGR  (Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor).

This is where my first project in my IT career was installed and commissioned - the fuel storage pond building for the THORPE reprocessing plant. Both were built in the 1980s, and my project was PDP11-based computer process control systems for the fuel handling machines. I spent several weeks working in this building during commissioning in the early 1980s, before the plant 'went live', so before it contained any nuclear fuel.

The afternoon sun on the hills

I rode the train south along the coast as far as Ravenglass, where I alighted for my overnight stay in the Pennington Hotel. Here is a video I took of my train leaving Ravenglass at about 16:45 on 24th May 2016 as it continued on its journey south to Barrow. Click on the link and listen to that growl!

The superb view over the River Irt estuary from the window of my room at the Pennington 

My hotel room - very nice! 

The Pennington Hotel is the larger building in the centre of the picture, on the left side of the road  

The Irt estuary 

This delightful little pub and fish restaurant is 'The Inn at Ravenglass', now owned by the Pennington Hotel. My room was actually not in the Pennington's main building, but was above this inn, its front and side windows visible here. That's my pint on the table in the foreground, from where one can savour that estuary view. 

A metallic rumbling caught my ear in time for me to capture these two Class 66 locomotives and empty nuclear fuel flask waggons heading over the river bridge on their way south from Sellafield. Spent fuel from all the UK's nuclear power stations is brought by trains in these flasks to Sellafield for storage and reprocessing.

I strolled down to 'The Ratty Arms' for evening meal and a pint of this refreshingly hoppy 'Sunshine' ale from Morcambe (& Wise - get it?). The Ratty is located in the down side station buildings, so passing trains can be seen through the windows. 

Outside the 'Ratty' I met this friendly cat 

Sellafield on the northern horizon

Late evening sun on the Irt estuary, as seen from outside the Inn 

This was my brew of choice in the Inn; another hoppy light bitter, with a picture of Windermere steamer 'Swan' on the pump handle 

Sunset over the estuary

When looking on the internet for accommodation in Ravenglass I was struck by how expensive it was for such a remote and relatively unprosperous area of the country. At breakfast in the hotel on Wednesday morning I realised the reason; everyone but me was smartly dressed in suits (men) or smart sober outfits (women). I was retired and having fun on the trains, but they were off to work, no doubt attending meetings at Sellafield. 

They were all on company expenses, as indeed I had been all those decades ago when my project was being installed and commissioned at Pond Five. There are no large 'chain' hotels in this area, so the lucrative business trade is, as it was back in the 1980s when I was staying here on business, shared between many small but high quality hotels, none of them cheap!

After breakfast I paid my bill and strolled along to the 'L'aal Ratty', the Ravenglass & Eskdale 15 inch gauge railway that runs from the town up into the hills at Dalegarth. The railway was originally built as a 3 foot gauge line to bring iron ore from the quarries at Boot to Ravenglass harbour for shipment. The quarries were worked out by the First World War and the railway fell into disuse. It was bought by model locomotive engineers Basset Lowke who re-laid it at 15 inch gauge and it ran until 1960 when once again it closed, and was threatened with scrapping.

A group of enthusiasts out-bid the scrap men for the railway and set about restoring and improving it. Today it is a thriving tourist attraction.

Through my volunteering work on the Churnet Valley Railway I have a Heritage Railway Association card which allows free or reduced cost travel on nearly all heritage railways. On the Ratty, it gave me a free ticket saving £17.

As a signalman, first port of call for me was the signal box. It's the only one on the line; the lever frame controls points and signals in the station and yard area, while the remote passing loops up the line and the sections between them are controlled by radio communications with the train drivers from the control room beyond the frame. I noted several black levers (for points) but no blue ones (facing point locks). "We don't need FPLs on little railways" explained the signalman. 

I had to catch the 12:35 train from Ravenglass main line station to connect with my train home, so had to ride the first train of the day on the Ratty, the 09:15 to Dalegarth and back, a round trip of about two hours. This first train is diesel hauled, as the steam locos were still being prepared to work the later trains. Here is the cab of Douglas Ferreira, our diesel hydraulic locomotive.

Our loco, prior to departure from Ravenglass 

While not as warm and sunny as yesterday, the weather was dry so I decided to ride in one of the open carriages to make the best of the views and to aid photography 

Our train heads for the hills 

Muncaster Mill, no longer working and now a private house 

Climbing steadily, the line is a switchback of up and down gradients of about 1 in 40 to 1 in 50, with an overall gain of several hundred feet in height to Dalegarth 

The high peaks of lakeland 

At the Dalegarth terminus our loco runs around its train for the return journey to Ravenglass 

On the way down, we pass a remote pub with a teepee in the garden 

At one of the passing loops we cross 'Northern Rock' on the rather crowded 10:30 departure from Ravenglass. Our own train, of about 10 coaches, carried about 5 passengers in contrast to the 10:25 which has a few coach parties of pensioners aboard.  

'Northern Rock' is the newest of the railway's steam locomotives, having been built in the workshops at Ravenglass. One wonders if the insurance company of the same name sponsored it! 

 Back at Ravenglass, 'River Irt' is ready to take the 11:25 to Dalegarth
Irt's cab. Two gauge glasses, two injectors, air brakes (loco and train), but no hand brake. 

'River Irt' started life as a tank engine named 'Muriel' before being rebuilt as a tender engine and re-named. This plaque is carried on her running plate to commemorate her earlier incarnation. 

I made my way to Ravenglass main line station for my train, to see 'Lord Hinton' departing northbound along the coast on the same train I rode yesterday 

Heading southbound along the northern shore of the Duddon estuary near Foxfield on the 12:35 'Sprinter' to Lancaster, which I will ride as far as Carnforth 

That 'lighthouse' (really just a monument) at Ulverston again, the Barrow Monument we last saw on my trip to Barrow on 19th May (see the blog) 

At Carnforth I alighted to spend some more time in the interesting heritage centre on the station. It is based on two themes; 'Brief Encounter' (which was largely filmed here), and Carnforth's railway history. A video telling the Carnforth story runs continually in the former entrance foyer... 

....While 'Brief Encounter' shows in the centre's cinema 

A pair of 37s from the adjacent West Coast Railways base set off through the station and onto the Leeds line. Note the unusual Furness Railway stone-built signal box at the end of the platform. This closed in the early 1900s, being replaced by the conventional 'box behind the 37s. Just by the 'box is a junction, the Barrow line heading off to the left, while the Leeds line curves around to the right (the 37s are following that curve) and crosses over the WCML to head east.

Looking the other way the lines curve round to join the WCML (the train in the distance is on those rails). My next train, a class 185 unit for Manchester Airport from Barrow, will arrive at the platform in the foreground before departing south along the WCML initially to Lancaster. The canopy over the other platform (on the right) is reputed to be the longest curved cantilevered unsupported concrete structure in the world.

At about 15:20 my train for Manchester Airport arrived. At Preston, it joined with another Trans Pennine 185 unit (though both are operated by Northern) to form a 6-car train which I rode as far as Manchester Piccadilly. At Preston I moved into this rear unit to be closer to the platform exit at Piccadilly, where I had only five minutes to make a connection with the 17:02 to Crewe. All went well until just short of Salford Crescent station when we were checked by a signal for about two minutes. 

Then it got worse. Between Oxford Road and Piccadilly we were again checked, for about 3 or 4 minutes. So I arrived on the footbridge at Piccadilly in time to see the Crewe train pulling out. The next Northern train to Wilmslow wasn't until 17:38, so I headed for the next departure which would call at Wilmslow, the 17:27 Cross Country train to Bournmouth. I showed the Train Manager my Northern pass and he was happy to let me ride his train to Wilmslow. This train stops only at Stockport on the way, so the lost time compared to the 17:02 all stations stopper wasn't too much.

So an excellent trip. All free, covered by by my Northern pass and Heritage Rail Card, except the overnight accommodation in Ravenglass. I was unbelievably lucky with the weather for Tuesday's trip up and own the coast; it really could not have been better. 


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