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 | Category: Scale 1:1 Steam tours
entry 31 Jul 2006, 21:22
Having visited most of the larger heritage railway sites within reasonable driving distance of home, I decided it was time for something a little different. Somehow, I don't remember how or when, I stumbled across the Past Time Rail website detailing their range of steam hauled railtours. The Torbay Express caught my eye for we had visited the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway last summer and had a thoroughly enjoyable day out, so here was the chance to ride the mainline behind a top link locomotive and have an interesting few hours in Dartmouth during the locomotive turn around to boot.
The 9:15 am start from Bristol required a rather too early start from home either by car or rail, so we stayed over night in a Premier Travel Lodge near J1 of the M32. This allowed us a more reasonable wake up time, though still too early for breakfast at the Lodge, and plenty of time to drive into Bristol city centre, find the entrance to the Temple Gate public car park (There's a sign that says 30 yds, and it really is 30 yards, just across a set of traffic lights and immediately before what I take to be an abandoned petrol station - blink, as I did - and you miss it. Just keep turning left and you get another chance.
The next trick is to work out how to use the pay and display machine. This one wants the numbers from your car registration before it will accept any money, but in its favour, it will only accept the maximum Sunday all day charge of 1.60 which is just as well as the scheduled return time was 21:40.
Temple Gate public car park is just across the road from Temple Meads station and right around the back of an "Express by Holiday Inn" - maybe we should have stayed there? Having crossed the inner city ring road, we walked up the station approach in glorious sunshine to be confronted by
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the station's grand facade. The eagle eyed among you join my wife in noticing that the station clock says 7:07. The fact that she was still with me at this stage in the journey is a hint that the time recorded by my camera of 7:56 is nearer the truth. Maybe this is the reason so many network trains do not run to time?
We heard the shrill peep of a whistle in the distance which was our first clue that the locomotive today would be 6024 King Edward 1 and not 60009 Union of South Africa as a posting on the Internet had suggested.
We arrived on platform 3 as the coffee bar opened in time for a continental style breakfast of croissant and coffee. Having breakfasted 'al fresco' in the station concourse we walked the length of platforms 3 and 4. On reaching the end of platform 3 we were rewarded with our first sight of our train for the day being brought in from the north hauled by 6024
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The train comprised 10 coaches - 8 for fare paying passengers and one each for the tour organisers and 6024 support crew. An interesting variety of liveries was worn by the coaches. The first three were cream and green, the next three were BR maroon, followed by two green, a blue/grey and finally 6024's BSK support coach in WR cream and chocolate. All the coaches were on Commonwealth bogies. 6024 drew the train down to platform 4 and halted while those passengers already present claimed their seats or walked to the front for their first closeup view of the loco for the day
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Moving further along the platform allows you to see more of the train standing in the sunshine
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The train left on time and following a warning whistle to the track gang working under the road bridge to the south of the station, 6024 began the journey south to Torbay. Speed built slowly during the first few miles and we passed by station platforms full with onlookers eager to see a steam engine drive through. After a few miles we were clear of the Bristol gradients and onto straight level track as we headed towards the next pick up point at Weston-Super-Mare.
Having picked up more passengers at Weston, we regained the mainline and continued to Taunton. The track was still straight and level and we were soon travelling at 60+ miles per hour. It is quite a different sensation to travelling at these speeds compared to the more leisurely pace of a Heritage line - I recommend it.
A long water stop was scheduled for Taunton. One of the difficulties faced by the organisers of steam railtours is the lack of water supplies. The owners of 6024 have a plan in hand for the future and the Tornado team have some too. In the meantime, sights like this
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outside a railway station are often an indication of a thirsty steamer on a nearby platform.
The stop at Taunton allowed plenty of time for taking photos or stretching our legs down the long straight platforms
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We weren't the only ones getting some exercise. A steam locomotive is a hungry mistress who must be fed as well as watered, and shovelling coal while stationary is a lot easier than on the move
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Of course life does not stop simply because there is a steam special on the line. During the Taunton stop we were passed by this HST. It is interesting to reflect that the Kings' working life extended for about 32 years. The HST fleet is now into its fourth decade; how much longer will they continue?
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Fully refreshed 6024 pulled out of Taunton and continued our journey to Exeter. After another pause to stretch our legs, we off again at full tilt down the Exe estuary, through Starcross around the curve through Dawlish Warren and onto the famous seawall. The super elevation on this curve is very marked inside the train. It was at this point in the journey that our conductor announced that the BBC series "Coast" was filming the train's journey for a future series. Our duty was to wave as we raced along the seawall. I am afraid that my identity will remain a secret as our seats were on the land side of the train.
My timings indicated that we running at the line speed limits all along the wall and through the tunnels and round into the Teign estuary. We slowed down on the approach to Newton Abbot in preparation for taking the branch to Paignton and came to an unscheduled halt in the station. After a few minutes we learned that there had been a points failure which would require manual intervention from a Network Rail team to clear. We sat back to wait.
After 35 minutes or so, a solution to the problem was found and we were on our way once more. Now that we off the mainline, it soon became apparant that this was a less well loved section of the network. Weeds abounded and the wild flowers made quite a show in the empty space between the running lines at Torquay. Beyond Torquay, the train slowed and I could see that the rail was now of bullhead profile on wooden sleepers. We pulled into Paignton Network Rail station and waited for permission to join the private rails of the Paignton and Dartmouth Railway.
While we waited we allowed to "de-train", so we wandered to the end of the platform where the train crew was being changed. The "Coast" camera and sound team were also there gathering material for the program. After a short wait, Lydham Manor drew into the "private side" of Paignton station with its train from Kingswear. It is hard to tell whether the expression of the two "observer" members of the footplate crew is one of awe or "flash so and so" in response to their sighting of the King. What is very clear is the common design heritage of the two locomotives. Lydham Manor being younger by 20 years though its 1913 vintage tender may tip the age balance the other way.
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As we were still running late, no time was lost in joining the P&DSR and a swift journey up the sharp incline over the headland to the estuary of the river Dart. We arrived in Kingswear only 20 minutes late and trooped off to join the "fare included" ferry crossing to Dartmouth. From there I was able to take this "signature" shot of "The Royal Dart" at Kingswear
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It is interesting to compare this shot with the one I took at the Railex exhibition in Aylesbury in May. The chief difference between the model and the current reality is the huge number of trees that appear to have been planted and grown since the war.
Dartmouth is a lovely place to stroll around. The "boat pool" is surrounded by an interesting collection of buildings
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It was now shortly after two in the afternoon and apart from coffee and biscuits from the buffet on the train we had not eaten. The thought did occur to me to wonder how Gordon Ramsey might manage if put in charge of a dining car kitchen on a train like "The Elizabethan". Other passengers had brought their own food which ranged from sandwiches to a full blown wicker picnic basket and wines to boot.
After a pleasant afternoon in the hot sunshine we boarded a return ferry at 16:30 to be sure to be across in time for the scheduled 17:15 departure. There were shades of Mother Hubbard syndrome as we arrived to find our coaches without a locomotive. A stroll to the end of the platform, we were becoming expert platform strollers by this time, brought us a view of the line up the estuary. We watched and waited. We focused and refocused cameras and then I captured this, my favourite shot of the day which has now become my desktop wallpaper
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6024 is returning from Paignton tender first having turned at Churston. Notice how high the coal has been piled in the tender, there will be nothing to see once we have returned to Bristol. The train left Kingswear a few minutes late, but made an on time arrival at the limits of Paignton station. There we had to wait for permission to rejoin the national network. This was duly given and the train pulled into the network side of Paignton station once more.
We were reminded that the BBC "Coast" crew would be filming on the sea wall at Dawlish, so waving was de-rigeur. Whatever we passengers may have lacked for enthusiasm was surely compensated for in spades by the footplate crew. It was clear from the moment we rejoined the mainline at Newton Abbot (the points still working) that a serious "show" was being put on for the TV. It was harder to read the quarter mile posts on the return journey because they were placed by the Up line we were now travelling. From those I was able to see and time, it was clear that we were running as fast as the limits allowed. Whatever the reality, it felt really fast and we reeled off the stretch from Dawlish to Dawlish Warren very quickly indeed. We thundered through Starcross at speeds only a demented motorist might contemplate (cars are restricted to 20mph past the station). This set the pattern for the rest of the return journey to Bristol; wherever possible the crew ran the locomotive to the limit.
There was a lot more activity on the "real" network on the return journey. During our stop at Exeter we were "overtaken in the pits" by two HSTs. Despite the best efforts of our crew, we were pulled into Tiverton loop to allow a Virgin voyager to pass on to whichever non-London destination it had been assigned.
As we travelled further north we noticed signs that not everyone had enjoyed the sunny weather that we had had. There were large puddles and in Weston it was raining. The sun had now dropped behind a bank of cloud which made taking a photo of the illuminated Clifton suspension bridge a disappointing failure.
Soon we were pulling into platform 3/4 at Bristol Temple Meads twenty five minutes ahead of schedule, the end of our tour. Gathering our belongings we hurried out to see the locomotive for one last time. In the light of a fast falling dusk, this hand held non-flash shot is the best that I got.
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The train nameboard has been removed and the headcode changed. The locomotive has been uncoupled from the train and will soon travel the half mile north the EWS yard to be cleaned out and shutdown, a task which will take some poor souls another few hours no doubt. We waved our enthusiastic thanks to the footplate crew and left the station some thirteen and half hours after our first arrival for the journey home.

During the journey I reflected on many things. If most of the passengers (myself and wife excluded) are 60+ or older, how long can these trips remain viable? I am too young to remember mainline steam and travel because of my fascination with machinery. Do people turn 60 and think "It's ok to be interested in trains now, people will think I am old and silly anyway"?

I was also struck by the number of people who lined station platforms, leaned over bridges and (very odd this) stood in the middle of fields - one chap had a step ladder to watch the train go by. The one place this didn't really happen was on the P&DSR. Here there were no bodies cramming the back door step to wave, leaning over the garden fence. For them stream trains are a commonplace and if they get half the smuts which came in through our carriage window - a nuisance - especially on wash day.

It was a great feeling to be in a train hauled by a locomotive doing what it was designed to do - convey a large number of people at speed across the countryside. Holding 75mph for mile after mile seemed very little bother and the fact that this locomotive is one of the 100+ Kings is entirely believable. But nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Whilst we were playing trains, there was a countless unpaid support crew to go with it. The HSTs which passed us, had one driver, one guard and a couple of caterers.

We had a really great day out. I hope that I have passed that feeling on through this blog. During the last part of the trip I got chatting to one of the tour's unsung heros starting to tidy up the already vacant seats. The owners of 6024 have to put a huge amount of effort into keeping it on the rails. This is not a museum piece which is allowed out on the mainline because it is a "nice thing to do". There are stringent safety standards which the locomotive must meet and so for "purists" who want to see the engine in some previous authentic condition there are many heresies. The website for 6024 gives some idea of what has been involved in this undertaking. The photos above give some clues - the airbrake hoses on the front buffer beam for example. During one stop, I could see a blue LED glowing in the cab. The whole engine is bristling with small copper pipes which are no doubt monitoring working conditions for all the major components. But to all those guys and gals who devote their spare time into making trips like this possible I say a big "Thank You". This is so much better than visiting a static exhibit in a museum or travelling on an emasculated Heritage Line. So instead of going to a couple of football matches, consider a railtour instead!

31st July 2006