Wednesday, 7 June 2017

37's to the Far North

37025 'Inverness TMD'  and 37421 at Wick preparing to head south with the SRPS 'Far North Explorer' tour on 3rd June 2017.
Those who know me will know that I don't tend to travel on many railtours- Given the choice I would much prefer to chase down the traction of my choice on service trains for a more 'genuine' ride. However I do make exceptions and when the Scottish Railway Preservation Society announced a tour to Wick and Thurso with a pair of classic class 37's it was an easy decision to book a few days off work and head north of the border.

37421 lead the tour from Inverness to Georgemas Junciton. During our first
photo stop at Helmsdale it catches the first of the days sunshine.
I had travelled the Far North line once previously, on a trip to Inverness with a class 158 which is the staple traction for the line, operated by Scotrail. The line is highly scenic (though the poor weather on this occasion did little to show off the landscape to me). The line is incredibly rural by nature and sees just 4 trains in each direction on weekdays. Thurso, the most northerly station in the UK and one of the termini of the route is 154 miles north of Inverness and a staggering miles north of Edinburgh (with a journey time of some 8 hours!). It was clearly going to be an epic trip and in light of the distance our train was due to depart from Edinburgh around 22:00 on the Friday night travelling overnight by way of Perth and the Highland Mainline to reach Inverness around dawn. We would then continue to Georgemas Junction to reverse before visiting both Thurso and Wick before beginning the long and scenic journey back to the Scottish capital. Overall this would involve more than 24 hours with our chartered train.

Friday 2nd June came and after a day in and around Edinburgh it was time to wait for our train at Waverley. As expected traction was a pair of 37's in the guise of preserved 37025 'Inverness TMD' and Colas Rail's 37421 (working it's first passenger train since withdrawal by EWS in 2004). For the run north I would be located towards the rear of the train formed of the SRPS Mk1 coaches. This was perfect- hopefully the chance to get some sleep and of course this would mean that the loco's would be at our end of the train for the daylight run south.

Sleep was of course hard to come by- and I'm not sure my poor earplugs, face mask left from the sleeper the previous night or the toasty ambiance of the coach (heated by the ETH on 37421) did a lot to help. Nor did the passengers opposite who gave a running commentary on how they could not get to sleep! Never mind- I was never going to get a good night's sleep in a standard seat on a Mk1 coach heading through Scotland overnight!

Leaky steam heat pipes powered by 37025's boiler.
At Inverness the first signs of 'proper' daylight (it never got totally dark all night really) were appearing on the horizon and while our locos were taken off the train and fueled the decision was also taken to swap them around putting 37421 at the head of the train. This loco was providing our heat- but with 37025 having a fully functioning and certified steam heat boiler the opportunity was too good to turn down. 37025's boiler was fired up and soon steam heating was warming the train (this being only the second occasion in preservation that a diesel train has been steam heated on the mainline). Unfortunately some leaky steam heat pipes in the stock did not help the passengers at the back of the train where it became distinctly chilly for the run up to Thurso! Breakfast was served before Georgemas Junction where the train was shunted to allow for the first southbound unit to pass our train. One locomotive was also run around so that our train could be 'top and tailed' for the branches to Wick and Thurso. After the stock had been watered we continued with 37421 powering alone to Thurso.

Here we left the train and took advantage of the optional coach tour to the very north of Scotland (well, as we had come this far!) heading to Dunnett head (the most northerly point in the UK) and to the more famous John O'Groats.

Re-joining the train at Wick the locomotives had been run around again to leave 37025 on the business end with 37421 once again tucked inside for heating purposes (37025 is through wired for ETH, however there was some concern the cables may not have been long enough to master the severe curves on this route!). The sun had come out and with the locos on our end of the train heading south into the Scottish Highlands this really was something to savour. The tour lost some time at Georgemas Junction waiting for a Scotrail Unit. The late running resulting in an extended stop further south at Brora, now very much in gloomy Scottish weather, to pass another unit while the booked stop at Dingwall unfortunately had to be curtailed (much to the disappointment of those wishing to stop here for Fish & Chips!).

Sunshine had become rain by the time we reached the Highland Mainline.
With 37025 leading our train pauses for a pathing stop at Blair Atholl.
After Inverness the train joins the Highland Mainline, no less scenic than the Far North routes but with a much increased linespeed and full semaphore signalling in many places. After climbing up from Inverness our train is recessed in order to let a Virgin Trains HST pass on the daily 'Highland Cheiftan' from London Kings Cross- this passes at speed proving this really is a main line despite the altitude and passing loops! Climbing on to Slochd and then Drumochter summits is a real test for our locomotives- excellent sound effects are heard from the head of the train with the locos left at full boar for some 20 minutes climbing the gradients.
A photo/pathing stop takes place at Blair Atholl as my journey begins to feel near to its end. Our train is now running to time having missed the long lay over at Dingwall and arrival at Perth, where I would leave the train, is on time at around 22:30. Those staying on to Edinburgh will enjoy another 2 hours of the class 37's but after 24 hours with this train I am definitely ready for bed.

What an excellent tour this has been- Great scenery, locomotives, company and even weather (in the most part). I'm sure I will be back again before too long for another SRPS tour- Kyle of Lochalsh must be high on my list now to reach with some classic Scottish 37's?
A final view of the train at Perth where we would leave for a proper bed. The train would continue to Edinburgh Waverley.

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