+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘steam train’

Photo post of the (insert arbitrary time period here)

Or, back to the railway

Back to the railway and the quiet post-viral timetable it is running at the moment. One nice thing about this timetable is that it gives me the opportunity to take my camera along and photograph the trains when they’re stood still, and the station when there’s no trains about. Normally you’re too busy to have chance for that sort of thing.

Bewdley station

Pannier tank

Bewdley North signalbox

2857 at Bewdley

Photo post of the week

Dw i wedi mynd i weld Sion Corn

Up to North Wales for the weekend, to help out with the trenau Sion Corn. My Welsh isn’t good enough yet to actually speak it, but good enough to understand when I hear one of the drivers trying to persuade a small boy that the loco is actually powered by a dragon inside the firebox, a la Ivor The Engine. The boy wasn’t having any of it.

The weather was grey, steely and windy. At times you could see across the Traeth; at times visibility was down to a hundred yards or so. Naturally, the time it decided to rain sideways was about five minutes after we’d decided we’d have time to walk over to Harbour Station before the rain started.

Cleaning out the ashpit

In the middle of The Cob

Overnight the storm grew worse, and in my bunk I could hear the wind outside and the rain hammering on the window. The next morning I was up early, so we could do a short-notice early-morning shunt to get a loco out of the Old Shed; as we shunted, it was pitch-black and cold but at least the wind had died down a little. As the locos started to warm up and come to life the dawn broke to show that there seemed to be just as much water, or more, on the landward side of the embankment as on the open-sea side. The salt marshes between the Cob and the Cambrian line’s embankment were a choppy, whitecapped sea, and inland the flooding went up the Traeth almost as far as if the Cob had never been built.

Flooded fields at Pont Croesor

Late arrival

Or, missing the train

I keep meaning to tell the tale of one of the most optimistic heritage railway passengers I’ve ever seen.

I took the kids to Totnes Rare Breeds Farm last week. If you don’t know Totnes: the town is on the west bank of the River Dart. The railway running past the town, coming from Plymouth, crosses the river, and on the east bank of the river forks in two. The right-hand fork is the main line, running eastwards to the head of the Teign estuary and thence along the coast to Exeter. The left-hand fork is a steam railway which runs up the valley of the Dart as far as Buckfastleigh, famous for its abbey and its tonic wine very popular in Scotland. Just to confuse you, both railway lines were originally built by the South Devon Railway, but nowadays the steam railway is reusing that name and the main line is just, well, the main line into Cornwall. Anyway, in the V where the railway forks, just on the east bank of the river, is Totnes Rare Breeds Farm, and it has no road access, indeed, no public access at all other than via the railway. If you want to arrive on foot, you must walk to the steam railway station (they have a footbridge over the river), through the station, across a little level crossing and into the farm. The level crossing has gates, just like a full-sized one, which the railway’s signalling staff lock shut when trains are arriving and departing.

We were sat feeding boiled eggs to a 93-year-old tortoise,* even older than The Mother Grandma, with another family, when I heard a sound from the station: the sound of the vacuum ejector on the train waiting to depart. In other words, the driver had just started to release the brakes ready to go. I checked the time: just coming up to Right Time for the next train. Looks like it will be a perfect-time departure.

“We’d better get going,” said the dad of the other family, “we need to catch that train.” And they got up and left. I thought it might be a bit cruel to tell them they’d almost certainly already missed it. The gates would already be locked, and even by the time they reached them, the train would probably be moving.

* one volunteer told us it was 94 and another 92 so I’m splitting the difference

Summer railway

In which we have a trip out by train

Never mind “Spring Bank Holiday”: it’s June, and it feels like it’s summer already: last weekend, we had a day at the beach, and both ended up horribly sunburned. As shorts aren’t an option for work, I winced every time I moved my legs. Yesterday: a bank holiday weekend, and beautiful sunshine again, so we went off for a cream tea and a steam train ride.

The footplate of a steam locomotive on a summer’s day is a horribly hot and airless place to be. Nevertheless, riding behind a steam engine seems like such a naturally summery thing to do. So we travelled down to the South Devon Railway,* for a day’s relaxation sitting in railway carriages and watching trains go past.

The South Devon Railway is, as steam railways go, an unusually scenic one. Being in Devon it’s surrounded by lush, verdant countryside; it follows the River Dart down from Buckfastleigh, past rough, rocky rapids; weirs and once-busy mill-races; finally alongside the more placid deeper, lower stretches of the river, down to its tidal weir just by Totnes station. It doesn’t take much effort for a train to trundle downriver; as we sat in the front carriage with the windows open, we could hear the locomotive clanking its way down the valley with barely any steam on, the vacuum pump making a light chiff noise for each revolution of the wheels. Every so often, a gentle touch of speed was needed, and we heard the deeper huffhuffhuffhuff of the cylinders, four huffs to each vacuum pump chiff. We passed sleepy red cattle, wading fishermen, and groups of wading photographers standing on mid-river rocks to take photos of the passing train.

Country trains often ramble a little, and pause unexpectedly. Midway along the line, we halted in a loop, and waited quietly for another train to pass. Other passengers, not used to this sort of thing, looked around and wondered what the problem was. We were too far away from the signalbox to hear the block bells chiming; but we could hear the rattle of the signal wires as the signals for the down train were pulled off, then we watched it slowly chuff past us before we started on our way again.

This is not Photo Post Of The Week, incidentally. That’s because the photos below aren’t ones I took yesterday; as usual, my photo uploads are far too backlogged for that. These, though, are from the last time I visited the South Devon Railway, about three years ago. The fixed stop signal has been repainted since, but not much else has changed.

Buckfastleigh station

Watering an engine whilst rounding the train

GWR tablet catcher, Buckfastleigh

* Things it is important not to confuse pt. 373: the South Devon Railway, the line from Exeter to Plymouth designed by Brunel, opened in the 1840s, and bought out by the Great Western Railway in the 1870s; with the South Devon Railway, the heritage railway formed in the early 1990s to take over the Dart Valley Railway’s tourist line from Totnes to Buckfastleigh and turn it from a business-oriented tourist attraction into a more charitably-run steam railway. You may spot a problem of similarity with the names there.

Steamy

In which we dream of speed and vampires

August is, as you can see, another quiet month.

A strange dream awoke me last night, so strange I was tempted to turn it into some kind of ghost story. It involved a pair of fu dogs, possessed by a pair of non-human, vampiric, shapeshifting creatures. The dogs themselves would move, when nobody was watching them; and bringing them into your house brought untold dread along with them, because the vampire-type creatures needed them and would do anything to get them back.

In other news: I rather liked the news story, the other day, about the team who broke the world steam car speed record. I like slightly quixotic challenges like that one. 139mph, with all the team’s modern technology, is only 12mph above the previous, hundred-year-old record. For that matter, it’s only 13mph above the 1938 steam train record, set by Joe Duddington of the London & North Eastern Railway on a special test run with the A4 class Mallard. The train had a slight advantage: nobody, when computing train speed records, has ever bothered about the effect of hills or slopes, so Mallard was going hell-for-leather downhill. It did have rather more work to do than the Inspiration, though, weighing 167 tons itself and pulling a six-coach train behind.

Photo Post Of The Week

In which we look at an old diesel train and a newer steam train

Another thing I mentioned that I hadn’t posted really: some pictures of old trains. Which, I know, isn’t something unusual for this site. But I did rather like this one:

Hymek passing Washford, Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust

Which, I like to think, could almost be a Western Region publicity poster – or rail safety poster, maybe – from around 1964. The impressive new Hymek diesel-hydraulic, made in Britain with the latest German mechanical technology, sweeping past Washford with a non-stop express to Minehead. Here’s some more, and a rather newer steam engine.

Carriage window

Track circuit indicators, SDJRT, Washford

60163 Tornado at the Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust, Washford

Local Transport

In which we consider the Wensleydale Railway

Sometimes, when we’re idly sitting on the sofa after work, we put the telly on and can’t even summon the energy to change the channel. Instead, we leave it showing things we’d never normally bother watching; but sometimes that throws up an interesting gem. Like tonight’s One Show for example. We wouldn’t normally watch The One Show, but occasionally it does have some interesting inserts. Tonight: an item on the Wensleydale Railway.

Coming from Oop North, I’ve been on the Wensleydale Railway a couple of times. It’s pretty long, for a private railway, pushing the length of busy, popular private railways such as the Ffestiniog or the North Yorks Moors.* Unlike those railways, though, it’s something of a quiet backwater, slightly ramshackle, with a sparse service operated mostly by 1950s diesel trains which main-line companies retired in the 90s. Being a bit of a backwater, appearing on the telly will hopefully be a big boost for it: not many people tend to know it’s there. It may be in the Yorkshire Dales but it stops just short of the National Park; it may be on the A1, but it’s damn hard to notice from the road.

One of the Wensleydale’s directors appeared on The One Show, and told the world what a unique railway it is; and how it performs a vital link in the community, and in Wensleydale’s regeneration, providing services to commuters and enabling them to get to major regional centres. Neither of those claims, really, are true. The director carefully skirted around the issue of whether the Wensleydale provides those services right now. Certainly, they’re hoping that it will do: that the company will be able to connect to the main line at Northallerton, and thence provide a connection to Newcastle, York, Teesside and Manchester. Right now, though, it stops short, and completing the connection seems to be on a distant horizon. When it does, the company will need a fuller timetable to be a reliable link: at present it operates three trains a day, on about 185 days of the year. The first one starts moving just after 9 o’clock; the last has stopped by 5.

Running a community rail service is hardly a unique aspiration to have, too. In fact, almost every private, preserved, or steam railway in the country has aspired to run a commuter and/or community service at some point. Very few have even got as far as trying it; the Worth Valley Railway did, in the late 1960s, and rapidly found it to be unviable. One private railway has done it successfully: the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch, operating services for schoolchildren. They do not, unlike most private railways, rely on volunteer workers to operate. The Ffestiniog also provides a genuine service for local residents; but it is strongly subsidised by their tourist revenues, which the Wensleydale doesn’t have.

There are two big problems with trying to operate a community service; well, make that three big problems. Firstly, there are two connected problems: price, and workforce. Railways are workforce-intensive, and private railways have to either pay staff, or get volunteers to turn out every day. Moreover, if they want to run a commuter service, they have to persuade those volunteers to start very early in the morning. Paying the staff, and the running costs, is very expensive; when you’re operating a railway which was considered too expensive to run at a profit, you end up charging fares which are too expensive for commuters. A return ticket on the Wensleydale already costs over £10, for the full line.** Moreover, there’s a third problem: speed. Nearly all private railways have to operate with a blanket speed limit of 20 or 25mph. Over the sort of distance the Wensleydale operates, that means a long journey. Fine for a summer jaunt; not good for serious travel. It’s the speed, more than anything else, that makes the Wensleydale’s long-term aims rather impractical.

There’s nothing wrong with the Wensleydale aspiring to their aims, of being a community railway operating a non-tourist service. I would be very surprised, though, if they do manage to complete them, purely because so many have gone before and so many have failed. If the Wensleydale think they are unique, and if they don’t realise that they are treading down a well-trodden path once more, they are very unlikely to reach that path’s end.

* The Ffestiniog will shortly have the largest steam railway network in the country. At the time of writing it operates two routes, the original Ffestiniog Railway (Rheilffordd Ffestiniog) out of Porthmadog and the new Welsh Highland Railway (Rheilffordd Eryri) out of Caernarfon; the project to complete the link to join the two lines together via Beddgelert is already under way.

** The Ffestiniog gets around the price issue by having local residents’ discount cards.

Photo post of the week

In which I spot a train

We discovered, the other week, that occasionally, just sometimes, if you drag yourself out of bed early on a Saturday morning and get down to our local railway station (1 train an hour if you’re lucky, to Weston-super-Mare), you can see something a bit more interesting than normal…

The Torbay Express passing Parson St station

The Torbay Express passing Parson St station

Two Torbay Expresses passing Parson St station

Two Torbay Expresses passing Parson St station

If one of the trains had been travelling a few seconds later or earlier, I’d have got a great photo of the equivalent 1930s and 1970s express engines passing each other.* As it was, the modern train is a blob in the distance. Ah well. Maybe I’ll get up early tomorrow too.

* With the added, slightly confusing detail, that both of the trains involved (not the engines) have the same name.

Photo Special (part one)

In which we go by train

Time for a winter holiday photo special, as I’ve spent the day with The Parents, looking at steam trains. Much like I did last Christmas, in fact; except last Christmas I was still using a film-powered camera, so the pictures didn’t make it online for quite a while.* It’s high time I did more photo posts purely for the sake of posting photos. Future ones will not all be of steam trains, I promise.

Winter sunlight

Steam

Valve gear

Platform scene

Evening

Under the bridge

* and I don’t think it was ever even mentioned here.

Old romantic

In which we feel a community spirit

I was a little doubtful when I saw, on the front page of Friday’s Guardian, the tagline “Steam trains – the great aphrodisiac”. I do like trains, but I wouldn’t say that about them.

It turned out to be subeditor’s hyperbolae. The article, by a former director of British Rail, turned out to be about the radical romanticism of the steam engine. Eroticism was only briefly mentioned. I’m rather glad, to be honest. Train-into-tunnel might be a classic visual metaphor, but I don’t think very many people would say that the train itself is what gets them going. There are people out there who haven’t just had sex on the train, but can remember the numbers of the trains they’ve had sex on – but I somehow don’t think it was the train itself that was turning them on.*

What I do like about trains is what that article calls “the rigmarole of trains”. The ritual surrounding the railway. The little bits of peculiar terminology that you don’t get anywhere else.** The natural romanticism of rail travel, and the community feeling that can spring up around the line.

* but if it was – on balance, I think I’d rather not know!

** phrases like “not to be used outside possessions”, or “not to be loose or hump shunted”.