Following the Tracks of the Royal Scot

Soon it was Tuesday morning.  The wedding had gone to plan with no last minute nerves and the only “Glesca Kisses” were affectionate ones.  It was hard to believe this was Glasgow.

The Holiday Inn Express provides a very reasonable buffet breakfast.  No pretence at cordon bleu but a good selection of cereals, fruit, yoghurt, make-it-yourself white and brown toast, and a range of hot drinks.  The only disappointing bit is the hot food which consists of skinless sausages, scrambled egg and baked beans.  The impression is that the sausages have made little acquaintance with real beef or pork during manufacture and whatever was used to make the scrambled eggs didn’t come out of a shell in the recent past.  Anyway, it was protein.

The train south was the direct service from Glasgow Central to London Euston operated by Virgin Trains.  The route was pioneered by the Royal Scot train 150 years ago, a train that only ceased to operate under the name in 2003.  It really is a bargain at just over £50 each – including senior railcard discounts – to travel in 1st Class for a 4 ½ hour journey covering around 400 miles.  It’s doubly a bargain when we count up what we might have paid for the complimentary tea, coffee and water, beers and wine, sandwiches and hot wraps plus the odd packets of pretzels and crisps, all of which were offered at regular intervals.

After a little more than one hour, the train arrived in Carlisle.  This station has great memories for me as it is where my love of trains began as a schoolboy in the 1950’s.  In those days Carlisle was a major railway junction.  Although the trains were all part of the nationalised British Railways, the old railway companies were still in evidence.  The direct line from London Euston to Glasgow Central was operated by LMS (London Midland Scottish).  There was a more circuitous and more scenic route provide by the Midland Railways which travelled from London St Pancras via Leicester, Sheffield and Leeds, where the locomotive was moved from the front to the back of the train.  This meant that front facing passengers were now facing backwards for the rest of the journey and vice versa for the backwards facing passengers.  From Leeds the route went over the Pennines along the famous Settle to Carlisle line and after Carlisle it diverted westwards to pass through Dumfries and Kilmarnock before arriving at the long since demolished Glasgow St Enoch’s Station.

As well as the two long distance routes described above, other railway companies operated services to the north, east and west.  The train to Edinburgh Waverley passed through the picturesque Scottish Borders (a line which was subsequently closed down but is soon to be revived), the train to Newcastle-upon-Tyne roughly followed Hadrian’s Wall and the train to Barrow-in-Furness hugged the Cumbrian coast from the Solway Firth to Morecambe Bay.

With all this diversity of lines Carlisle Station was a hotbed for train spotters.  Of course I’m talking about the days of steam engines.  And every line had its own classes of engines to suit the distances covered, the gradients, the number of carriages and the speed.  Some of the trains had names, such as the aforementioned Royal Scot, the fastest daily train from London to Scotland, and the Thames Clyde Express that left London from St Pancras on its much slower journey to Glasgow St Enoch’s.  Many of the steam engines had their own grand names.  Amongst the highest powered were “The Duchess of Hamilton”, “The Duchess of Sutherland”, “The City of Edinburgh” and “The City of Birmingham”.

In the 1950’s it was long before the dreaded “Health & Safety” started to dominate our lives.  As teenagers we were encouraged to wander around the station and go wherever we liked.  If you were really lucky, a friendly engine driver would invite you onto the footplate to see the inner workings of a great steam locomotive.  Also in those days, every long-distance train had the wheels checked by a wheel tapper.  These were men with long-handled heavy metal hammers who walked the length of train whilst stationary in the station, tapping the wheels to listen for defects in the steel.

Carlisle was a major base for locomotive maintenance and so a short distance from the station each railway company had their own engine shed.  Again “Health & Safety” hadn’t been invented so, as boys, we were allowed to wander round the engine sheds at will.  Could you imagine this being permitted in 2014.

As well as the hundreds of passengers changing trains at Carlisle every day, the station was a major hub for the Royal Mail.  Most passenger trains carried bags of mail and, particularly through the night, a fleet of mail trains would pass through going north and south.  Many of these trains had teams of postal workers on board, sorting the mail whilst in transit.  As a student, each Christmas I had a job with the Royal Mail, mostly doing deliveries from house to house, but, occasionally, getting the plum job of servicing the mail trains.  Working through the night, the rates of pay were higher.

From Carlisle the mainline South skirts the English Lake District and climbs over Shap Fell, one of the highest points on Britain’s rail network.  In the days of steam the gradients were so steep that many of the trains were pulled by two locomotives between Preston and Carlisle.  I remember one occasion when our school Scout troop was heading to the Welsh borders for a summer camp.  The school had booked a whole carriage to carry us with all our post-war army surplus heavyweight camping equipment.  When the train reached Preston some of us got off and went to watch the second locomotive being unhitched from the train.  The driver told us that the train had reached a speed of 107mph as it came down Shap – a record for him and for us train buffs.  Today the Pendelino tilting trains are all electric powered, much quieter and very smooth, and have a driving unit at the front and the back of the train.  They can travel at up to 150mph but on this route are limited to 125mph.  I have no idea what speeds we reached today as, of course, these days you don’t get to speak to the driver.

This has been the wettest winter in the UK for many years.  The news has been dominated by flooding in the West Country, especially in Somerset, and in the Thames Valley.  But whilst these are clearly serious situations, it was all too obvious from the train that virtually the whole country is affected.  There was so much standing water and most rivers we crossed had burst their banks.  The damage to farmland must be immense.

Earlier problems on the line meant that our train was held up from time to time behind other trains.  By the time we pulled into Euston we were about 20 minutes late – still less than 5 hours for the whole journey.  Unfortunately it was now well into the rush hour so we had to battle with our cases through the overcrowded tube system to Waterloo and on the train out to Richmond.  This was the only difficult part of the whole journey.

As I wrote this blog the next night, the TV news was carrying stories of hurricane force winds battering the west side of the UK and saying that Virgin Trains had cancelled all services on the West Coast mainline, the very route we had travelled.  And just to add to travellers’ misery, part of the roof of Crewe Station that we had passed through, had been blown off and had landed on overhead electric cables causing a fire in the station.  Weren’t we glad that we hadn’t stayed an extra night in Glasgow.



About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement based in Richmond, London. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels in North America, Europe and Turkey plus other places as yet unknown.
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