From the outset of the East Midlands Rover, I had three fairly full days planned; however, the night before I was due to start I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. As a result, I decided to swap my plans for Friday and Monday, so that I could start a little later on the Friday. This necessitated a little alteration, as I had planned to spend Friday night in Sheffield with Jonathan (who I stayed with for two nights on the All Line Rover, see my sixth and seventh blog posts).
1101 Coventry to Rugby, arr 1113 Headcode: 2Y58, operated by London Midland using Desiro 350122 Distance: 13.5 miles; walk-up price: 3.15 I began with the short trip to Rugby on a pretty empty Desiro; this was a journey I had done many times before on the way to and from London Euston, but I had never spent any significant amount of time at Rugby. The journey took just nine minutes, at an average speed of 90mph. Rugby is the nerve centre of the West Coast Main Line: aside from commuter trains closer to London, pretty much everything on the West Coast Main Line will pass through Rugby at some point.
It is home to the signalbox which will very soon control the line all the way from Watford Junction to Lichfield. And until you stand at Rugby and see just how close the trains run together, it is difficult to comprehend just how busy the WCML is. As it is, trains can run on green signals on plain track at less than two minutes apart, though they are only timetabled three minutes apart to allow for some slack.
Nonetheless, if one is running a minute late, they can and do run closer together than on any other 125mph main line in the country. Aside from a plethora of fast Virgin Trains Pendolinos running to and from London Euston, there are a number of London Midland services, and a large amount of freight. The WCML handles a disproportionately large amount of freight compared with the rest of the railway network, not least because it has been recently upgraded to cope with more freight, but also because the rest of the network is still lacking in capacity.
From Rugby, freight trains run from as far away as the ports at Southampton and Felixstowe to the container yards at Coatbridge in Scotland, and beyond. I spent 45 minutes at Rugby this Friday morning watching various freight trains go by; I saw a number of container trains, most notably a Freightliner service (double-headed by 86638/86637) which stopped in platform 6 for what appeared to be a driver comfort break, or possibly a driver change. In an unusual move, I saw two new Stansted Express units (379014/015) using platform 2 at Rugby.
National Express East Anglia are buying 30 new four-car sets for use on the Stansted Express and the other West Anglia lines into and out of London Liverpool Street; this will release older stock for use elsewhere. Before being brought into service, however, they have to be tested and run-in to shake down any faults; it would appear that this testing is happening on the WCML between Rugby and Crewe, where there is some off-peak capacity. Anyway, while nine Virgin Trains services an hour in each direction pass through Rugby off-peak (that rises to as much as 14 an hour at peak times), only one an hour stops at Rugby; what’s more, this extends only to Birmingham.
As such, since 2008 Rugby has lost out on stops on services to Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow, prolonging journey times in the mad dash for speedy services to and from London. Indeed, Rugby is in the perverse situation where sometimes the fastest way to go north is via Milton Keynes – which is in exactly the wrong direction! However, at least Rugby still has an hourly fast off-peak service to London; Nuneaton, Tamworth and Lichfield all have no off-peak fast trains, and only a handful of irregular stops in fast trains in the peaks.
An hourly London Midland stopping service makes up the shortfall, which I took from Rugby to Stoke-on-Trent: 1204 Rugby to Stoke-on-Trent, arr 1313 Headcode: 1U31, operated by London Midland using Desiro 350241 Distance: 67.25 miles; walk-up price: 8.50 This hourly service is very well-used, and it proved difficult to get a seat, though it gradually thinned out as we got further north. The service in fact stretches all the way from London to Crewe, providing the only (off-peak) direct trains from London to Nuneaton, Tamworth and Lichfield. However, it goes via Northampton, not the fast route via Weedon, and then gets sent from Stafford to Stoke-on-Trent and then back to Crewe, rather than running direct.
End-to-end journey times are not, therefore, spectacular, but the run via Northampton permits it to be overtaken by the one Virgin Trains service which calls at Rugby; as such, it provides a connection from that train to places like Nuneaton, Tamworth and Lichfield. The best illustration of the lack of speed with which these London Midland stopping trains serve the line is that faster Pendolinos running on the adjacent fast lines passed us not once, not twice, but three times just between Rugby and Stafford. Granted the Desiros are capable of 100mph (which is, in fairness, pretty fast), not the 125mph of the Pendolinos, but it seems a little odd to consign all the stops to just one service, and not provide even Nuneaton (by far the largest of the towns on the Trent Valley) with at least one train an hour to and from London.
There are two types of Desiros operated by London Midland: the 350/1s, which have 2+2 seating for longer-distance services, and the 350/2s, which have 2+3 seating for busy commuter services into London. As is inevitable, though, the two types get exchanged freely between the services, so this fairly long-distance service was unfortunately operated by a 350/2, which had noticeably less width to the seats and slightly less legroom. The journey to Stoke-on-Trent took just over an hour, where I alighted and bought some lunch, as well as taking a few photographs of the station.
My next train was a one-carriage local train to Derby: 1333 Stoke-on-Trent to Derby, arr 1424 Headcode: 1K14, operated by East Midlands Trains using Sprinter 153381 Distance: 35 miles; walk-up price: 5.10 The North Staffordshire line is something of a railway backwater: it retains jointed track, semaphore signals operated by lever frames, manually worked level crossing gates, and just an hourly passenger service in each direction between Crewe and Derby, via Stoke-on-Trent and Uttoxeter. Only a few years ago, services on the line extended from Crewe to Skegness via Derby and Nottingham; in 2005 the service was split into two parts at Nottingham, to improve punctuality; soon after, the residual service on the western half was curtailed to just run between Crewe and Derby, thus necessitating two changes to make the journey from Crewe to Skegness today. This service was provided by a single-carriage Class 153 Sprinter, of which I have talked at length before.
They are not the most wonderful trains, but in this case it was perfectly adequate for this local service, which was actually quite well-used. We arrived in Derby on time, a station with which I’m fairly familiar after a number of visits over the years. Derby is a key hub of the Midland Main Line, having been the original headquarters of the Midland Railway.
While not all the trains pass through Derby (for example, the London-Nottingham services), almost all the maintenance is done at Etches Park Depot just outside Derby. Derby is also the point at which the principal Cross-Country route, the north-east to south-west axis, starts: the Derby-Birmingham-Bristol line, while today operated by CrossCountry, was originally built by the Midland Railway, and so the mileposts count from zero at Derby. Most of the other lines that CrossCountry uses are in fact bits of other main lines; the Derby-Bristol route is possibly the only track on which CrossCountry can claim to be the “main” operator.
On this visit, I caught a rare sight of the Network Rail Measurement Train stopped in platform 3. This train is, essentially, a big yellow HST (in this case it was 43013+43062) fitted with cameras, sensors, and lots of computers to record and monitor the state of the track it’s running over. This is used as a means of tracking the state of the rails, looking for breaks and other defects.
It runs over most of the mainlines in the UK on a two-week rotating pattern, and is based in Derby. After half an hour in Derby, where I bought a snack and took a few photographs, I headed for the Derwent Valley line to Matlock: 1454 Derby to Matlock, arr 1528 Headcode: 2A42, operated by East Midlands Trains using Sprinter 153376+153313 and 1536 Matlock to Derby, arr 1610 Headcode: 2A51, operated by East Midlands Trains using Sprinter 153313+153376 Distance: 17.25 miles each way; walk-up return: 3.50 The Matlock branch was, many decades ago, the Midland Railway’s main line to Manchester. Trains ran from London St Pancras, through Leicester, Derby, Ambergate, Matlock, over the Peak District to Buxton, New Mills and Manchester.
All except the 20-mile stretch in the middle, between Matlock and Buxton, remains open. Unfortunately, that closure in 1968 turned the through line into two branches, Manchester-Buxton and Derby-Matlock. Indeed, it is fairly remarkable that both branch lines have survived.
Nevertheless, the lack of connections across the Peak District is palpable, and the A6 road has struggled to take the strain imposed on it since the trains ceased to run. Reopening the Matlock-Buxton line would provide a very useful second route to Manchester. When upgrade works on the WCML in 2003-04 prohibited a through service on the usual route from London Euston to Manchester, an hourly London-Leicester-Manchester service was run, but that used the curve at Dore, near Sheffield, to run between Chesterfield and the Hope Valley, and is quite full already.
Such a reopening might also take some of the strain off the WCML, which is liable to be full to bursting within a decade. Nonetheless, the line that remains is a beautiful (if somewhat slow) line that climbs up the valley of the River Derwent to Matlock. We were in two class 153 Sprinters coupled together, and at Ambergate (where the branch leaves the main Derby-Sheffield line) I heard the train in rear start its engine; while one engine suffices on the flat, the branch is pretty hilly and needed the power to get up the hills.
I hadn’t quite appreciated how hilly Derbyshire is until this journey; the line weaves its way up through the valley, crossing the River Derwent a number of times, and passing through a number of tunnels, to Matlock, a small town of 20,000 people or so in north-west Derbyshire. Upon arriving at the terminus, there is little to do in the way of trains but go back whence you came, so after just eight minutes I got back on the train and headed back down the valley to Derby. After a brief wait for my next train to come out of the sidings, I boarded: 1634 Derby to Kettering (via Corby), arr 1801 Headcode: 1P69, operated by East Midlands Trains using Meridian 222102 Distance: 67 miles; walk-up price: 11.50 Almost all services on the Midland Main Line (MML) pass through Leicester.
However, there is another route between Kettering and Loughborough, which avoids Leicester but instead passes through Corby, Oakham and Melton Mowbray, and this was the route taken by this train. Corby was, for many years, the largest town in England without a railway station. It re-opened in 2009, with an hourly service to and from London St Pancras.
Melton Mowbray and Oakham are served by the Birmingham-Stansted CrossCountry service, but until recently had no through trains to London, instead requiring a change at Leicester. However, the track on this line from Kettering to Manton Junction (south of Oakham) was never closed in the first place; it remained in place throughout, used mainly by freight, and occasionally passenger trains diverted due to engineering works. Once Corby station reopened, a few trains a day were extended through Corby to Oakham and Melton Mowbray, with one in each direction extending to Derby, and it is this train that I got.
So consistent is the calling pattern that the conductor, having carefully announced that this train was not calling at Leicester, on departure announced “welcome to the 1634 to London St Pancras, calling at East Midlands Parkway, Loughborough, Leicester— CORRECTION: calling at East Midlands Parkway, Melton Mowbray, Oakham, Corby, Kettering…”. That goes some way to showing that this service is, indeed, something of an oddity. But a very nice oddity it is: the line provides a much more interesting view of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire countryside than the usual route through Leicester and Market Harborough, including the spectacular Welland Viaduct, an 82-arch masonry viaduct crossing the River Welland on the Northamptonshire-Rutland border.
Now, my original plan at this point called for continuing to Bedford, heading across to Bletchley and back up the WCML to Coventry. However, in moving the plan to Friday I had to fit in a night halt at Sheffield, in order to be in position for Saturday, so I turned back on myself and headed north, on the conventional MML route to Leicester: 1804 Kettering to Leicester, arr 1830 Headcode: 1F56, operated by East Midlands Trains using Meridian 222016 Distance: 27.25 miles; walk-up price: 7.00 This train is a rare example (well, rare at least north of London) of portion-working: two Meridians are coupled up and run from London to Kettering, where they split in two; the front portion goes forward to Leicester, Derby and Sheffield, and the rear portion continues to Corby. I had a pretty tight connection to make at Kettering, with just three minutes to charge across the footbridge; I was very glad of the platform staff, one of whom saw me coming and guided me to the correct portion of the train.
I thanked her quickly and jumped on the train with a minute or so to spare. As I say, this train was going to Sheffield; however, there are a number of different routes to get to Sheffield, even on the MML. The trunk of the line runs to Trent Junction, just north of East Midlands Parkway, where the line splits in three.
There is the line to Derby, the line to Nottingham, and the Erewash Valley line which heads due north to Alfreton. All three lines join up again just south of Chesterfield. Few trains use the Erewash Valley line in full, but in its heyday it was the Midland Main Line to Sheffield, being the fastest way there.
However, Sheffield on its own wasn’t quite enough of a basis to sustain a fast service, especially when it bypasses both Derby and Nottingham, and so except for a few crack expresses in the peaks most trains, then and now, run via either Derby or Nottingham. Running from London to Sheffield via Nottingham entails a reversal at Nottingham, but running via Derby does not, so almost trains to and from Sheffield today run via Derby; the only exceptions are a few peak London-Nottingham services which are extended to Leeds via Sheffield, in order to access the depot at Neville Hill in Leeds. That said, the best journey time today from Sheffield to London via Derby – two hours, seven minutes – is only one minute slower than when they last ran express services via the Erewash Valley.
I decided that I’d seen Derby enough times for one day, so I decided to change off the train going to Sheffield via Derby, and head via Nottingham instead. This necessitated changing onto the following train at Leicester: 1837 Leicester to Nottingham, arr 1910 Headcode: 1D57, operated by East Midlands Trains using HST 43058+43082 Distance: 27.25 miles; walk-up price: 6.00 Ah, at last, a proper train with locomotives and coaches. The High Speed Train has been on our network since 1976, and very rapidly became the icon of the railway network.
The Transport Secretary Philip Hammond recently announced that they would be refurbished in order to work on the Great Western Main Line down to Penzance for another decade or two yet. This will be no mean feat, since they do not comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, because they have manual doors, something the refurbishment will have to correct. Slam-door trains were, until just a couple of decades ago, the backbone of our network.
However, while those of us who know where the handle is (lean out of the window) love them, they aren’t so easy to work with for people who are small or even not very strong, and so automatic-door trains are becoming the norm. One of the reasons people like me love slam-door trains was that, in the days before central locking, they made the whole experience more efficient, because you could be on the platform before the train was fully at a stand, which could easily gain you ten or twenty seconds. It doesn’t sound like much, but the added time it takes for automatic-door trains to have the doors released, open the doors, check there’s no-one left in the way, sound the beeper, close the doors and drive off adds 15-30 seconds to every station stop; for instance, when South West Trains revised their timetable in 2004 they added sometimes as much as five or ten minutes to commuter journeys into London.
And five or ten minutes is definitely a big deal, especially in train timetabling. I was expecting a mad dash at Nottingham from platform 4 to platform 3 to catch a five-minute connection; however, our train was redirected into platform 1, meaning that I just had to walk across the island to catch my final train of the day: 1915 Nottingham to Sheffield, arr 2015 Headcode: 1Y56, operated by Northern Rail using Sprinter 158910 Distance: 40.75 miles; walk-up price: 7.45 My last train for Friday was run by Northern Rail, who introduced an hourly service between Nottingham and Leeds in December 2008. While there were already hourly services between Nottingham and Sheffield, and many more between Sheffield and Leeds, this was the first direct service between these two locations for over 25 years.
The journey was largely uneventful, though we were slightly delayed at Dore Junction due to a late-running Transpennine Express service coming from Manchester, which we followed into Sheffield. By this stage the sun was setting on a long day, and I arrived in Sheffield to meet Jonathan, with whom I went for dinner in Zizzi’s in Leopold Square in Sheffield, before retiring to his flat in one of the University of Sheffield halls of residence, where he’s now doing a PhD. Friday’s statistics, then: Total time on trains: 6h 46m.
Total distance travelled: 312.5 miles. Total price for walk-up tickets: 52.20. For a ticket that cost 44.20, it’s impressively good value – though admittedly I had carefully planned my activities to get the maximum value out of it.
In my next post, I’ll tell you all about Saturday – to Cleethorpes and back!
See more here:
East Midlands Rover, Day 1 Knowled