Those colourful Brits, Part 2

Posted by Tom Murray
on Wednesday, November 16, 2011

At Carlisle, England, a Northern Rail Class 142 Pacer DMU awaits its next trip on the right, while across the platform a Virgin Trains Class 221 Super Voyager tilting DMU arrives on an Edinburgh-Birmingham train.

In Part 1 of this report I described the trains my wife Marcia and I rode in the United Kingdom in May 2011 as we traveled from Wales to London and then on to York.

Our next destination was Scotland. While Marcia opted to go from York to Edinburgh the way most people would, on an East Coast train scheduled to make the trip in 2 hours 42 minutes, I chose the more circuitous route via Leeds, Settle and Carlisle, which would take me over the historic and, by all accounts, very scenic former Midland Railway main line between the latter two points.

The Settle-Carlisle line is one of those pieces of railway that, had there been more cooperation between competing companies in the nineteenth century, would never have been built. The Midland was a regional company centered on Derby, but its route to Scotland depended on competitor London & North Western. L&NW handled the Midland's Scotland traffic over its route through the Lake District to Carlisle, the western rail gateway to Scotland, but it did so with no sense of urgency.

To spite L&NW, the Midland proposed its own 72-mile line from Settle to Carlisle through the sparsely populated Yorkshire moors, and across the Pennine mountain range. In 1866, Parliament approved the Midland's proposal. When L&NW relented, proposing a more favorable arrangement for the Midland's traffic, the latter tried to withdraw its Settle-Carlisle proposal, but Parliament was fearful of railway monopolies, and insisted that the Midland proceed. It did so to its great regret. Six thousand "navvies" (low-paid construction workers) set to work, and over a period of six years starting in 1869, they constructed a line whose massive earthworks, 20 viaducts and 12 tunnels were all aimed at smoothing out the region's challenging topography, leaving the line with a ruling grade of one per cent. The project was budgeted at £2.2 million, but ultimately cost the Midland £3.5 million. According to rail guide author Michael Pearson, it also cost the lives of more than 200 of the navvies.

The line was almost lost during the railway closures of the 1980s, but a strong public response helped spare it, and today a loyal band of volunteers, the Friends of the Settle-Carlisle Line, claiming 3,500 members, helps promote the route and maintain its stations. The operator today is Northern Rail, which operates six trains in each direction over the entire line each weekday, seven on Saturdays and three on Sundays, using Class 153 Super Sprinter and Class 158 Express Sprinter DMUs.

I took the 0947 train from Leeds, the south end of the Settle-Carlisle train service. We had a pair of Class 153s.

Northern Rail is a joint venture split 50/50 between Serco (a U.K.-based company whose business is to provide outsourced public services) and Abellio (a fully-owned subsidiary of Netherland Railways). This partnership also operates Merseyrail, a Liverpool-based train operating company.

The weather at Leeds, partly sunny when I arrived from York, was turning more cloudy by the time I left. It would grow darker and more inclement the farther north I traveled. Here, my train is passing Ribblehead station, 52 miles north of Leeds (and 11 miles north of Settle). The nicely-painted trim and benches are typical of the line's stations. I might have gotten off here to get a good look at the 24-arch Ribblehead Viaduct; at 1,320 feet in length and 104 feet in height, this structure is the line's signature engineering achievement. But the 0947 train didn't stop there, so I planned instead to disembark at Appleby (another 30 miles to the north), whose station serves as the headquarters of the Friends group.

As it was, my only photo of Ribblehead Viaduct was this reflection-marred view out the window.

Still, even under dark skies and with intermittent rain, the scenery lived up to its billing.

My train arrived at Appleby at 1136. Again, the station was charming and well-maintained.

I had read that Appleby itself was an interesting village, with several places to eat, but I found that the walk to the village would involve descending a long hill. I was traveling light (considering that we were on a 97-day trip), with just a backpack and a 22-inch roller bag, but I didn't relish the thought of rolling that bag downhill and then back up again. So I spent the next hour exploring the station, examining some of the posters and other historical materials on display, and hoping that a freight train would pass (no luck there, however). So, I was pleased when the next northbound train showed up on time at 1243, whisking me off to Carlisle's Citadel Station, 31 miles distant. My luck improved there, and I spent a very satisfying 90 minutes watching and photographing trains. I started with this Northern Rail DMU, decorated to promote tourism in the company's service area.

The station is a photographer's delight, with broad platforms, good afternoon angles (yes, the sun did finally re-emerge), and next to platform 6, six paintings evoking the history of the steam railways that once served Carlisle. Also, there was a café and sandwich shop conveniently located on platform 3, which let me keep an eye on the trains while having lunch.

To travel from Carlisle to Edinburgh, I had a choice between First TransPennine Express (a 55/45 joint venture between U.K.-based First Group and French transport operator Keolis)...

... and Virgin Trains (a 51/49 partnership between Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Stagecoach Group, the U.K.'s second-largest public transport operator after First Group). Virgin's one-stop service, using Class 221 tilting DMU equipment, would get me there about ten minutes faster than TransPennine's two-stop service using Class 185 Desiro DMUs, and Virgin's schedule worked better for my needs, so I went with it. In addition to the Class 221 DMUs (see photo at the top of this post), Virgin's trains through Carlisle also feature Class 390 Pendolino EMUs, like this one on a Glasgow-London Euston train.

The other operator at Carlisle is First ScotRail, a fully-owned subsidiary of First Group. The ScotRail franchise will be up for bid in 2014, and there is already controversy brewing in Scotland over what parameters the government will set for the next franchisee.

There is also freight activity through the station, like this Freightliner Heavy Haul train that paused for a change of drivers.

My Virgin train departed Carlisle at 1502; an hour and 20 minutes later (and 100 miles to the northeast) I was at Edinburgh's Waverley station, which like King's Cross in London, was in the midst of a construction project. The first thing I spotted after leaving the train was this Class 90 electric, in First ScotRail colors but marked "EWS" (for English Welsh and Scottish Railway, now folded into freight operator DB Schenker). I can only guess that it was some type of protection power, on standby to rescue disabled trains. Or perhaps the 90024 was assigned to the nighttime Caledonian Sleeper service. In any case, given the preponderance of DMU and EMU equipment across the U.K., it was was nice to see a real locomotive for a change.

From Edinburgh, we traveled north to Inverness. East Coast operates one train a day between London King's Cross and Inverness by way of Edinburgh, using HST 125 equipment. As of the summer of 2011, it still carried the poetic name Highland Chieftain in the East Coast timetable. However, its schedule didn't work for us, so we traveled in a nice 2-and-1 first class section on a First ScotRail Class 170 Turbostar DMU. The clock tower in the background belongs to the upscale Balmoral Hotel (originally the North British Hotel, named for its owner, the North British Railway).

We spent much of our time on the train chatting with a fellow passenger who would disembark at Aviemore and spend the next week hiking along the River Spey in the direction of Elgin, staying in B&Bs along the way and, he implied, sampling the wares of the local distilleries.

The 118-mile Highland Main Line from Perth to Inverness is a hill-and-dale affair. Starting near sea level at Perth, over the next 50 miles it climbs to an elevation of 1,484 feet at Druimachdar Summit, descends for the next 33 miles to Aviemore, and then climbs again to reach a second summit (Slochd, at 1,315 feet), 22 miles south of Inverness. The line's largest structure, about six miles southeast of Inverness, is the 29-arch, 600-yard long Culloden Viaduct, which crosses the River Nairn at an elevation of 128 feet. Nearby, the Battle of Culloden took place in 1746, marking the end of the Jacobite uprising against British rule.

As our train entered the Inverness terminal, we passed this EWS Class 67, which I would later learn was assigned to the Inverness section of the Caledonian Sleeper, whose cars stood nearby.


Each evening except Saturday, sections of the Caledonian Sleeper depart from Inverness, Fort William (on the West Highland Line) and Aberdeen (on the east coast, north of Edinburgh), and are combined at Edinburgh into a single train that continues via the West Coast Main Line to London Euston, arriving there at 0747. The combined train reportedly operates with a maximum of 17 cars. A separate Caledonian Sleeper train offers service for passengers from Glasgow and Edinburgh, arriving at Euston shortly before 0700. The northbound service departs Euston at 2115 for the three northern destinations, and 2340 for Glasgow and Edinburgh. With the exception of a sleeper service from London to Penzance (the Night Riviera, operated by First Great Western) this is the only sleeping car service left in the U.K.

After a couple of days exploring Inverness and vicinity, we had our biggest day of rail travel in the U.K.

The first leg was on the 0900 First ScotRail train for Kyle of Lochalsh, on the west coast. We had a mix of sun and clouds, and the day improved as we approached Kyle, with the mountains on the Isle of Skye coming into view.

We arrived at Kyle at 1128, and had a pre-arranged taxi waiting for us. It would take us across the bridge to Skye and then to the ferry terminal at Armadale, where we would take the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry back to the "mainland" at Mallaig. (Note: the taxi was an expensive option, and for those not so pressed for time, there is bus service that connects the rail station at Kyle of Lochalsh and the ferry terminal at Armadale. The Traveline Scotland Web site is a great source of information about public transportation, and there are similar Traveline sites for the rest of the U.K.)

We had time for lunch at Mallaig (the best fish and chips I can remember, using the freshest of cod from nearby waters) before boarding the 1605 train to Glasgow Queen Street station. Our train consisted of four Class 156 Super Sprinters, which would be nearing capacity by the time we left Fort William at 1737.

The scenery along the West Highland line was beautiful. This scene is near Glenfinnan.

I knew that we would pass the super-premium Royal Scotsman tourist train at Bridge of Orchy just before 1900; my only question was whether the clouds would darken the sky so much as to make a photograph impossible. As it was, I did get a couple of photos.

Motive power for the train was this Class 57, operated by West Coast Railways.

We arrived at Glasgow Queen Street at 2129, more than 12 hours after leaving Inverness, but it had been a good day. Our lodging was in a former railway hotel next to the station (now the Millennium Hotel Glasgow). The next day, before leaving for Edinburgh, we walked a few blocks to the city's other station, Glasgow Central. It's the terminal for trains between Glasgow and the south (i.e., England) as well as suburban services, which is the role of this SPT (Strathclyde Partnership for Transport) Class 314 EMU.

Central Station also has some of the heaviest-duty bumping posts I've seen.

En route to Edinburgh aboard one of First ScotRail's frequent trains between Glasgow Queen Street and Edinburgh Waverley, I spotted this SPT Class 170 equipment at Haymarket Depot.

Edinburgh would be our last stop in the U.K. before departing for Scandinavia. Prior to arriving in Scotland, I had read Charles McKean's book, Battle for the North: The Tay and Forth Bridges and the 19th Century Railway Wars, and I had seen the episode of Michael Portillo's BBC series, Great British Railway Journeys, devoted to the Forth Bridge.

The bridge consists of three main cantilever truss structures, 330 feet in height. The two main spans formed by the cantilever structures are each 1,710 feet in length. Including the approaches on the north and south sides, the bridge is 8,296 feet in length. David Plowden has written, "the Forth became a milestone against which other achievements in the field of bridge engineering are still measured."

We had crossed the bridge en route from Edinburgh to Inverness, and I was determined to see this magnificent structure from the ground. A friend who works for Network Rail in London had told me that I could get there by taking a local train from Waverley to Dalmeny, on the south side of the Firth of Forth, and reach a good vantage point after a short walk. But as we were checking into our hotel in Edinburgh, Marcia noticed a brochure for a Forth Bridge boat tour. It didn't take me long to decide that this was my best option, so I was soon on a tour bus headed for Dalmeny and a transfer to the Forth Belle sightseeing boat. I'll close out this report with three views of the Forth Bridge.

The first shows several of the approach spans on the south side, as well as the three cantilever structures.

Next, an East Coast HST 125 train bound for Aberdeen is dwarfed by the southernmost cantilever truss.

In 2011, the bridge was in the final stages of a ten-year, £130 million repainting project, using a new type of glass flake epoxy paint that, it is hoped, will last more than 25 years. The white enclosures on the center structure are to protect the workmen (as many as 200 at one time) involved in the project. Until this work began, the bridge had been continually repainted since it opened.

Yes, we enjoyed our time in the U.K.  I have a long list of reasons for a return visit.

Additional rail photos from our travels in the U.K. and Europe can be seen at my Picasa photo gallery.

For an overview of the trains and other forms of transportation we used during our European trip, see our personal travel blog.

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