Wednesday 15 July 2015

The Romance of Train Travel: not gone yet!

I was given a copy of Andrew Martin's "Belles and Whistles" about the decline of the famous named trains, the fall in standards from monogrammed cutlery on express trains to wooden stirring sticks.

The cover picture says it all, really, but although it is generally true that travel is not as special as it was (by car or by air as well, come to that, as well as rail), there are still four or five trains in the UK which are still rather special and I have made a point of seeking these out and travelling on most of them as part of my railway adventures. Their future appears shaky at times but at present is as secure as anything that requires commercial success can be.

All my train journeys have been described in posts in this blog, but I list them here for convenience, and there is one I have not yet done but is on my "list".

1 The Night Riviera

Great Western Railway has retained several named trains in its timetable, but most of these are just any old inter-city train, with a name in the timetable notes. The one real exception is the Night Riviera, the sleeper train service between Penzance and London Paddington, with dedicated coaches and a tailored provision of service. A movie about it can be seen in my post last summer. We travelled on it from London to Penzance and it was a great experience, quite different from many a frenzied departure from Paddington. The coaches have recently been upgraded and so the experience is probably (even) better than when I tried it.

The Night Riviera departs from platform 1 with its polished marble surface, and sleeper train passengers are entitled to use the First Class lounge on this platform. The gleaming train is brought in well in advance of its departure time and passengers are met at the doors by attendants and taken to their berths. A pack of toiletries is included and there are all the facilities needed for a night aboard the train (though no showers on board, but there are at the terminus stations). There is a Club Car serving food and drink, and breakfast can be taken in sleeping compartments or in the Club Car: I always prefer sitting fully-dressed in the Club Car, feeling ready for the day, and it is great to look out on Cornwall slipping past the train windows while eating breakfast.

This train operates every night except Saturday (few need to be in Cornwall first thing on Sunday morning!) and the London-bound one (which I have not yet tried) arrives in time for work. Weekend in Cornwall: no waking travel required (if you're in London)!

My description is at The Cornish Riviera!

2 The Caledonian Sleeper

This is actually two trains: the Highland Sleeper with sections for Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William, and the Lowland Sleeper with sections for Edinburgh and Glasgow. Both depart from and arrive at Euston station in London, the former leaving much earlier in the evening than the latter. Both are special but the Highland train more so, and that is the one I describe at West Highland Adventure.  Like the Night Riviera, the train is at the platform in good time and passengers may use the First Class lounge, but in this case there is no beauty in the platform itself, looking as much like a cellar as any other Euston platform. We are met by the attendant and shown to our berths. This train includes a Lounge Car with leather sofas and a few dining tables, and leaving early enough in the evening it provides a decent dinner menu (which I understand is even better now than it was when I travelled - I think another trip is called-for!) with a Scottish feel.

It is worth travelling to Forth William just for the train ride! Arrival is well into the morning, for the ride is so long, and this train just takes you to another world, finishing on winding single track in wild landscape after its departure from London along some of the busiest main line in the country. Again, it is worth dressing and having breakfast in the Lounge Car, with coffee on the sofa watching the snow-capped peaks slip by the windows.


New rolling stock has begun to be used on the Caledonian Sleeper there is an opportunity for even more romantic travel, including double beds in some berths, and en-suite showers.

3 The Highland Chieftain

This train does not have dedicated coaches, it is "just" another HST (Inter-city 125 High Speed Train), but it is the only daytime train between London and Inverness (the sleeper being the only other through train) and is the longest trip available on the East Coast Main Line. I have used this a few times in both directions (although never end-to-end, having to connect into it along the way). The catering is just like that on other Virgin Trains East Coast services, but you do get to consume quite a lot of it on such a long journey! There are no longer restaurant cars on these trains, but a First Class ticket includes an at-seat meal service of decent-enough food and drink.

It feels particularly special when standing at the platform at Inverness among the two- or four-coach Sprinters going to other parts of Scotland, and, naturally, even more special if you travel, as we always have when visiting Scotland, First Class. 


The Highland Chieftain now uses the Hitachi Intercity Express Train sets which the present operating company LNER calls "Azumas", just like almost all of the other LNER trains. But its route, and its once-a-day timetable, still makes it special.

4 The Gerald of Wales

Dinner on the northbound Gerald, with thanks to
Thomas Isherwood on Twitte@ThomasIsherwoo2
This is the train that needs to be included, but which I have not yet tried, Transport for Wales's Gerald of Wales between North and South Wales, which has dedicated coaches and complimentary cooked meals in First Class and sounds wonderful, one journey per day in each direction. I understand that the tablecloths have now been removed to give a more "businesslike" atmosphere, which is a pity for leisure travellers but understandable! The train leaves very early in the morning from Holyhead with breakfast served on the way to Cardiff via Chester, and the crew aims to serve everyone, not just those boarding early. The return evening service is more likely to appeal to leisure travellers than the early southbound one, and a three-course cooked dinner is served on this.

I understand that there is a simple First Class upgrade available to Standard Class ticket-holders, this being the only TfW train conveying First Class accommodation. I can feel a triangular trip coming one - starting with an outing to South Wales and ending at Llandudno via the Gerald (apparently named after a medieval Archdeacon ...).


I understand that TfW now runs a similar train a few times per day on its Cardiff-Manchaster rail route. Makes it an even more enticing proposition for those of us living in England!

5 Pullman Dining

I said there are "four or five" special trains. The one I did not know whether to include or not is the handful of ordinary First Great Western train services that convey what the company calls a Pullman Restaurant Car, the only remaining full restaurant service on ordinary British main line trains. The trains are nothing extraordinary, but the dining is! It is not cheap, but neither should it be with this standard of catering. You have to look carefully in the timetable to select a train that has the Pullman Restaurant Car, for most of them do not, and you have to budget for the meal as if you were going out to an expensive restaurant. It was one of the best meals I've ever enjoyed and it was served beautifully. Fully recommended as a way to make a 125mph journey to Devon pass even more quickly - we were in Exeter as the table was cleared!

Posted at Return to the Dart 


Since writing this I have travelled on the direct train to the French Riviera and would definitely now include that journey in this list. It is mostly not in the UK, of course, but it started in London and is long enough for two on-board meals. It is just one train a day at most (less in the off season), but sadly does not have a name. My report at Mediterranean Sunshine, part 1.


Wednesday 1 July 2015

Don't you know there's a war on?

I got involved in the war by accident, really, or by a coincidence ... One Saturday this summer I found my day off shifted to a Saturday and my wife away for the weekend. An opportunity to go away alone for the day. Living in the East Midlands the choice of destination is huge but a preserved railway was definitely high on the list of possibilities. "What about the Severn Valley?" I thought, as I had not been there for about twenty years and have always liked it. The trip would only involve a change at Birmingham - easy to do. So I looked at the Severn Valley Railway's website to start planning and found that the Saturday in question was the first day of the first of two "forties" weekends when various special events would take place to evoke the wartime era. Dressing up was encouraged but as the only outfit I had that would suffice would involve wearing a mac and a hat on one of the hottest days of the year I gave that a miss - as did about half of the day's visitors - but it was really great to meet a lot of forties enthusiasts in uniforms and other period costumes.

To get the most out of the day I left Stamford early, on the 07:05 train to New Street. At weekends all tickets are off-peak but I still saved quite a bit (apart from using my Senior Railcard) by booking to Birmingham return and then from Birmingham to Kidderminster return separately. The total was less than £20 for the round trip but would have been over £30 booked as a through fare! I had hoped to use my voucher I'd received as compensation for late arrival in London a few weeks earlier, but they can only be used at booking offices and that had not opened when I got to Stamford station so early on a Saturday and I bought my ticket by card at the machine instead. The voucher will come in handy some time, though.

Picking my way through the tramway construction in Birmingham city centre I walked to Snow Hill for my train to Kidderminster and bought my onward tickets. As I went down to the platform I passed a "soldier" and then a young couple with rather small, old suitcases and strangely archaic clothing. In the 21st-century context of Snow Hill station in the still-developing new financial centre of our second city I was already finding myself in the forties time-warp. The train was due any moment and was a semi-fast terminating at Kidderminster: on the way I would see some of the Black Country places I had not seen for many years, so it was a good time to be looking out of the window.

Arriving at Kidderminster I made my way to the terminus, next door to the main station, of the SVR to find it already busy with soldiers, sailors and airmen of several nations as well as civilians in period and in up-to-date costume. Although not in costume I think I fitted in OK with jeans and a check shirt. I bought my ticket (and identity card) and went to the NAAFI to buy my coffee. Prices were definitely 21st century!

Moving onto the platform I was delighted to see that my chosen train consisted of teak LNER coaches with art deco detail. Hauled by a Southern locomotive but there is a war on so these things happen - although the British Railways livery was a bit "Back to the Future". The train was packed as far as the first stop at Bewdley and then it was merely full. My plan was to travel part way up the line to Highley then back to Bewdley before making the trip all the way up to Bridgnorth at the other end of the line. This was I'd ride on several different trains and see several stations, and I'd be in Bewdley at lunch time so I could try the Great Western pub which had been recommended to my on Twitter.

So at Highley I left the teak-panelled splendour of the LNER and wandered around the station area for a while before catching the next train south. Re-enactors were busy preparing for a battle to be staged later in the day at this station. A locomotive had acquired a SNCF logo for the battle was to be in France - now I had shifted in space as well as time and began to wonder what was in my coffee ...

My train down to Bewdley was a real treat, too, GWR panelled coaches bearing some interesting destinations all over the West Country. I had never seen the interiors of coaches like these before. For this stage of the trip I wandered down to the buffet car, which had a sixties Formica interior unlike anything seen in the war, but it was selling a real ale for this weekend so I forgave the decor and took my beer back to my compartment. Bewdley is a place where trains "cross" in opposite directions and there are locomotive facilities and much to be seen on a normal operating day for those with enough time, but it was lunch time now and I left the station for the short walk to the pub, which I had seen earlier from the train as it crossed the viaduct just by the station. There were many "military" vehicles in its car park, and many "service personnel" in the bar! A pint of ale and a ham roll were consumed and I returned to the station to take the next train north the Bridgnorth. This time I sat in the (sixties) buffet car, near the "chimney sweep" I'd seen in the pub, with a gin & tonic and got into conversation with an "airman" and his (real) wife.  We discussed all kinds of things about forties paraphernalia and about real life, too, and another round of gin & tonic got us to Bridgnorth where we parted company. So far, everyone I had engaged in conversation lived a lot nearer to the SVR than I did and most were in the habit of attending this weekend every year. It is so popular that the railway now does it on two successive weekends to spread the load a bit.

I strolled into Bridgnorth thinking I really need to come here with more time - I think a four or five day visit when there is no special event on the railway (trains are much slower in wartime!) will have to be made so that the towns can be properly explored: a future adventure is now in the early planning stage! Back to the station and the train back to Kidderminster. This time I was in a compartment and I met a younger couple, he again the RAF uniform, both fairly local.

We were joined later by and older couple. Our new gentleman companion was in flying kit as if he'd just climbed out of his aircraft! Must have been a bit hot under the sun we'd had most of the day.

The train made frequent and sometimes long stops (there was a war on ...) but got to Kidderminster eventually. There was time to go onto the platform at Arley while we waited for two trains to cross ours: people were dancing to a live singer on the northbound platform.

With having to be back in Stamford for the Sunday morning I had to forego the evening entertainment on offer (at extra cost) and catch my train back to Birmingham and on home. But the day was not quite over yet: I stayed on as far as Moor Street station in Birmingham city centre and had my supper at the Centenary Lounge, stepping back another decade into the art deco pre-war era, before walking through to New Street and the train home.

Reconstruction at New Street is now coming along nicely and there is just a glimpse of the daylight above the concourse - still behind hoardings. I look forward to the opening in the autumn when we shall no longer have to find a different way around it at each visit and all the entrances and exits will be open. The journey back was smooth and uneventful and I was soon home and uploading my photographs for people to see. If you were there, you may spot yourself!

My photographs can all be found at of which only a tiny selection is posted on this blog entry!