Thursday, 30 April 2015

Calais Day Tripper (and beyond!)

It is early on an August morning as a I awake for quite an unusual day out. Today I would be heading abroad- just for the day- to travel the 'traditional way' from London to France.
Once a very common route with regular scheduled boat trains and stations next to the ferry terminals at both ends, since the commencement of Eurostar services the journey from London to Paris via Dover and Calais is now a little more difficult.

The journey starts in London, with a South Eastern train to Dover Priory- Dover Western Docks station closed in 1994 once Eurostar trains started, negating the requirement for an easy connection from train to boat. These days the connection is by taxi, or on foot (approximately 30 minute walk) as soon after my trip in August 2014 ferry operator P&O withdrew the shuttle bus which connects the station and the port.

Not everything for the 'traditional' journey has disappeared however- bargain priced through rail ticketing is amazingly still available! London to Calais 'Day Tripper' tickets are still available starting from just £39.50 (as of April 2015)- These tickets carry no peak restrictions and allow travel on any train to Dover Priory, and any P&O ferry across to Calais, and back on the same day. A small extra supplement is payable to use high speed services in the UK. You can even get a 1/3 discount on these tickets with a railcard and buy from many other stations in the former Network SouthEast area! An absolute Bargain!

Of course to make France and back in a day it is an early start- but allowing for the 45 minute foot passenger check in at Dover we make the 10:15 crossing to France on board the 'Pride of  Burgundy' and were heading across the straight of Dover. What a beautiful day it was too!

On a sunny summer's day there really is nothing I would prefer to do that sit up on the outside deck at sea- so this is exactly what I did for the duration of the roughly 90 minute crossing- watching Calais draw slowly closer, as the famous white cliffs of Dover slowly receded from view.

There is a good catering service available on the P&O ferries as well as plentiful indoor seating should you not be blessed with the sunshine we experienced.

Interestingly we had followed the former rail ferry 'Nord pas de Calais' most of the way across the channel- until the opening of the Channel Tunnel this was the way that rail vehicles made the journey across the straights of Dover. Built in 1987 she had a very short life as a rail ferry and now continues to see use with My Ferry Link on freight only services due to her limited passenger carrying capacity. Like the stations at Dover Western Docks and Calais Maritime the rail ferry traffic ceased soon after Eurostar operations began in 1994- most freight was now able to pass through the tunnel while passenger traffic between London and Paris by boat almost vanished. Many predicted the end of the cross channel ferries as well- but this has certainly not proved to be the case!
 The transfer from the ferry to the town of Calais is easier than at the British end as this time there is a bus, though the cost of this is not included in the ticket price. The bus drives a rather circuitous route around the town to reach Calais Ville Station. Across the road is Calais' landmark Hotel de Ville with it's stunning clock tower which can be seen from many miles away on the ferry.

One could quite happily while away the day in Calais before taking the boat back across the channel to the UK- but there are also options to continue the rail adventure to other towns in the area, or of course to abandon the day trip and continue on the full traditional journey right through to Paris.

Crossing the viaduct at Wimmereaux viewed from the train. 

Local TER trains depart from Calais Ville heading to towns along the coast such as Dunkirk, Boulogne and Etaples (for Le Torquet). One of my favorites is the smaller town of Wimmereaux between Calais and Boulogne which boasts a traditional shopping street and pleasant beach- once the home to rich Britons wishing to escape to their summer homes in France. For long distance travel TGV trains also call at Calais Ville heading to Lille and Paris.
BB67533 in the traditional blue livery waits to leave Boulogne with the traditional Intercities service to Paris gare du Nord.

TER train at Calais Ville.
 By taking a TER train to Boulogne it is still possible to connect onto traditional loco-hauled 'Corail Intercity' trains to Paris several times a day. While somewhat slower than the TGV service there is still something nice about traveling in a traditional train and arriving in Paris without having covered the high speed network.

Sadly I would have to wait for another day to make it all the way to Paris for I would be using the return portion of my 'Calais Day Trip' ticket. It feels like it has been quite an adventure- and certainly helped by some stunning weather. Watching the sun set over the straights of Dover from the Spirit of France is the perfect end to a long but very enjoyable day. I've just got the delights of night trim travel back to London left to look forward to now- but at least I have a rucksack full of French goodies! Next time you fancy a day out with a difference - without breaking the bank - how about setting sail for the France day trip?

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

47's still going strong with GBRailfreight work

The hire of class 47's by GBRailfreight has given the class a further lease of life hauling heavy freight trains in the north east. With approximately 100 years service gathered between them recently overhauled and re-painted 47812 and 47847 cross the River Aire north of Ferrybridge with 4D31 from Drax to Doncaster on 17th April 2015. Several additional class 47's are planned to go on hire from Riviera trains to GBRailfreight to provide relief traction for the class 66's which form the mainstay of their fleet. The 47's tend to work trip workings and freight services which do not stray too far from their base at Doncaster- typical destinations include Drax, Goole and Hull.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

HST Diverts

A spectacular view of the approach to Waterloo Station as 43015 tails 43031 on 1O42 08:45 Penzance to London Waterloo. More regular traction is passing in the shape of  450074 with a South West Trains service. 6th April 2015.
43183 basks in the sunshine on platform 11 at London Waterloo
 before working 1V73, the 1207 London Waterloo to Penzance.
43025 was on the rear of the train. 6th April 2015.
 Over the 2015 Easter weekend (and also Sunday 13th April) all lines in the Reading area were closed to allow the final stages of the station remodelling to take place. As had happened two years previously FGW services to the west country were diverted between Westbury and London travelling via the SWML through Salisbury, Basingstoke and terminating at London Waterloo. This offered the rare chance to see and travel on the iconic HST's over southern region metals. With the final stage of the Reading upgrade works now complete it is unknown if HST's will traverse this route again- especially with the pending introduction of the Intercity Express class 800's on the Great Western route.
Passing at speed- 43018 leads 1V78 the 1707 London Waterloo to Penzance, seen passing 
43071 & 43032 on a late running 1O44 the 1044 from Penzance. 6th April 2015.
43161 is seen passing the semaphore signals at
Greenford with a diverted FGW service on
Saturday 4th April 2015.
 As well as diversions via the SWML, HST's were also running out of Paddington and then via the Chiltern main line to Banbury in order to avoid the works at Reading. Trains to both Bristol (via Bath) and to South Wales were using this route. Between Paddington and the Chiltern line HST's travelled via the single line Park Royal branch affording the chance to see HST's alongside traditional semaphore signals in the London area.
Stranger at Waterloo- 43028 shares the station with the more usual crowd of class 450 and class 444 desiros.
6th April 2015.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Picture of the week- 8th April

Each week Network Rail runs a multitude of test trains which use high tech equipment to test the nations track for defects, gauging issues and a multitude of other parameters. The southern region commuter zone sees very heavy passenger traffic levels and hence is inspected regularly. The TRC (Track Recording Train) has a regular schedule to test all the regularly used routes. Usually this operates with class 73 locomotives, either 73138 (operated by Network Rail) or locos hired in from GBRailfreight. Occasionally other traction may also appear. This was the case on 8th April when 37688 'Kingmoor TMD' made a welcome change from the 73 stronghold while reversing with the train at Waterloo. 73201 'Broadlands' had led the inbound working and 37688 would now haul the train from Waterloo to Wimbledon.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Comment- West Coast Railways operations suspended

On 2nd April West Coast Railways, the UK's largest charter train operator had its license to run trains on the national rail network suspended by Network Rail. The notice issued by NR can be read here- It has essentially been deemed that safety is not high enough on the agenda of WCR following several incidents culminating in what NR describes as 'the most serious SPAD [Signal Passed At Danger] that has taken place this year' when a steam charter with 34067 'Tangmere' overshot a signal at danger at Wooton Basset Junction. The incident in question could have had dramatic consequences bringing the train directly into the path of a high speed passenger service- it doesn't bear thinking about.
WCR's 47760 passes through Finsbury Park with a charter to the south coast in December 2014.
Of course there was no collision and nobody was injured in this incident but the fact that there was even the potential for an accident of this magnitude has to be drawn into question.

34067 'Tangmere'- the locomotive involved in the SPAD at
Wooton Bassett is seen on a WCR charter in December 2014.
Safety Systems-
The fact that the UK has one of the safest railways in the wold is no accident. In fact it is of course due to accidents that the railway today is so safe. I would highly recommend anyone who has not read it acquires a copy of 'Red for Danger: The Classic History of British Railway Disasters [L. T. C. Rolt, 1955]' for a fascinating read of how the UK's railways have learnt from the accidents of the past to become the efficient and safe system they are today. The industry can proudly claim that it has not lost a life in an accident since the Greyrigg disaster of 2007 in which one elderly passenger sadly died. In recent years heavy investment has gone into safety- it is no surprise that since the introduction of Train Protection Warning System that the number of SPAD's has dramatically reduced. This system is designed to prevent incidents just like the one WCR was involved in at Wooton Basset. Sensors in the track are able to detect the speed of a passing train and on-board systems will automatically apply the brakes and bring it to a stand if it is exceeding the permitted limit. The TPWS sensors are located adjacent to key signals protecting junctions, at locations where there are speed restrictions and entering terminal stations where trains must stop. How therefore did the WCR train cause a SPAD of such a serious nature?

Manual override-
WCR have operated scheduled passenger trains. 47851 is seen
at Nottingham in 2008 with a train for Skegness.
While the full report is not yet concluded, early indications suggest that appears in the WCR incident an action between the driver and fireman had isolated the TPWS and/or AWS (Automatic Warning System) rendering it useless. The train would no longer receive indications or brake applications from the track about it's speed or any signals it passed at danger. In normal operation critical safety systems such as these cannot be ignored. However there are situations when the TPWS and AWS can be overridden. Usually this would be as an emergency measure to move a train- any such a move would be agreed by the signaller under very strict conditions and the train would be removed from service. All systems can fail and railway systems are designed to 'fail safe'- a TPWS fault could cause a trains brakes to apply and not release. It is situations like this where on a busy railway authorisation could be granted to isolate the TPWS in order to clear the line. As far as it can be ascertained, no such instruction was received by the WCR crew. It appears they took the decision themselves to isolate the safety systems, continuing on their way without the signaller even being made aware of the situation. A grave decision which could, potentially have cost lives. The full report will make interesting reading.

What next-
I have no doubt that in such a serious lapse of safety standards as this, and given NR has had 'concerns about WCR’s performance of its Safety Obligations for some time' the right decision has been made to suspend WCR's operations.
Is this the end for WCR? I suspect, and hope not- after all WCR has a strong and profitable business. NR's suspension letter details the process for reconciliation- a list of seven steps WCR is required to take in order to re-gain it's operating licence. There will need to be some step changes to achieve this but it is clear that if WCR want to change their operations to comply with NR's requests then a solution could be reached.

WCR class 37516 (left) and 37706 (right) pose for the cameras
at the Eastleigh Works 100 open day in 2009.
WCR has a significant business running charter trains with both steam locomotives as well as with it's heritage fleet of diesels. Being such a dominant operator in the charter sector means this suspension notice will certainly have consequence on that market. First and foremost a significant number of trains will be cancelled, and leisure travelers inconvenienced as a direct result of the inability of WCR to run its trains. We can also expect further work to be lost by WCR with it's reputation taking a huge hit. Other operators who contract their trains to WCR will surely think twice now that the company has a significant stain on it's safety record. The travelling public too might think about whether it wants to travel with a company shamed for its lapse safety standards.
Staff will be affected too with work not forthcoming from WCR- many of their staff being on 'zero-hour' contracts such is the nature of charter work. Owners of steam locomotives also will see their hire charges disappear as their booked work is cancelled while trains are not running.
Unfortunately there is likely to be no alternative operator waiting in the wings to take on this charter work. It is often regarded as 'marginal' in the rail industry, and although profitable the larger rail companies will need to put their core businesses first. Even if another operator such as GBRf or DRS were to take on some of this work it would be a long process to get the staff and systems in place to operate such a large schedule of trains- besides neither operators currently have a safety case to operate steam traction. Only DB Schenker is now able to run steam trains on the network and their resources for further charter work are severely limited.

The suspension of WCR's operating license is a significant event. Never before on the UK's railways has a company had it's nationwide ability to run trains revoked. NR does not take a decision such as this lightly and there are clearly real concerns about how WCR has gone about its business. The UK runs a very busy, and very safe railway, and WCR must fit within this. It is very clear that no company will get away with a policy of 'playing trains' and running by it's own rules.
I hope WCR resolve NR's concerns and quickly. They are a valuable part of the railway tapestry in the UK and the heritage sector contributes to many peoples enjoyment of the railways- it however cannot do so at any cost, without accountability and without due attention to safety.
WCR's core business is excursion trains with both steam and diesel traction often over scenic rail lines such as here on the
Cumbrian coast line. WCR's operations include the 'Jacobite' tourist trains in Scotland, they also ran the 'Hogwarts Express'.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A look back at the First Scotrail Sleeper

On 31st March the first Serco Caledonian sleeper service departed from Fort William bound for London Euston. Serco has been contracted to run the sleeper as a standalone franchise for the next 15 years with promised investment in the service hospitality, menu and the much anticipated new trains that will arrive from 2018. Traction will be provided by GB Railfreight with, in the most part, class 92's and re-built class 73/9's hauling the train.

Here is a look back over the past 10 years while the Caledonian Sleeper has been part of the First Scotrail franchise with EWS (later DB Schenker) providing traction power:

Shortly after departing Castairs 90028 heads north Edinburgh in 2012.

Sleeper accommodation on board the Mk3 coaches.
The trains also provided seated accommodation and a
very popular lounge car in Mk2 coaches.

37427 with the Fort William portion in 2005

Class 67's replaced class 37's and 47's on the diesel portions.
67009 is seen in the early hours at Edinburgh Waverley.

37427 crosses one of the many viaducts of the West Highland line

Class 90's clocked up many thousands of sleeper miles
between London and Scotland. Scotrail liveried 90024
acts as ECS loco at Euston
An unusual visitor late in the DB schenker operation was
Chiltern liveried 67015 seen outside Inverness depot after
working the sleeper during 2015.
Sleeper stock at London Euston ready for the overnight trip.