Friday, July 26, 2013

In Buxton: 25 July, a day out

Yeah, I guess I should blog. (Astute readers may remember I did that one last time too.)

Yesterday was a day of settling in - we laid in supplies of food, established communications with the outside world (phone for me, 3G modem for Chris), sorted out the cash passport problem, watched several episodes of Mythbusters and had an early night. I did manage to pause the movie and look out the window whenever a Class 66 went by with a limestone train, but that was about it.

So today I woke early, shaved so as to look less like an anorak-wearing gricer (that's British for gunzel), gathered Clippy and my gunzelling gear and caught the 5:59am train from Buxton. Yep, told you I woke early. If only I felt that alert when I was working at Clayton and did 6am starts five days a week.

Not that I was all that alert, because I managed to leave the power cables for both Clippy and my phone on my desk in my room. Conserve power!

On the way to the station I discovered that I hadn't finished getting my phone onto 3G. No internet connection except free WiFi hotspots. ARGH! So when I got to Manchester Piccadilly (which is a place I never weary of, no matter how much I yearn for Australian life and am willing to live and learn) I scouted around the restaurants looking for WiFi symbols. There was one, but I had trouble connecting, so I went in, bought some breakfast (eggs benedict, very yummy) and asked about it. The waiter rebooted the router and I had a connection.

Now to find a Three shop within walking distance. Hm, there's one off Market Street. I know where that is, it's on the tram system. Oh dear, that means seeing how they're going with their massive expansion project!

I headed down to the tram stop and went for the ticket machine, having found out the hard way that a BritRailPass doesn't count. It was perfectly simple to understand and operate, which is good because it doesn't have the excuse that it's a huge system like Myki does. The new trams are pretty well identical to the old ones on the inside, and even have that cute steamboat whistle!

Unfortunately the Three shop opened at 9am so I had to kill about 40 minutes. So much for getting up early. Never mind, plenty of time left in the day. Once they opened I told the tech my problem and she said "Oh yes, you have to fill in the APN", and proceeded to put the whole lot in, from memory, in about ten seconds flat. It connected and immediately started syncing emails. I told her she was amazing and she told me to have a great day.

So I went back to the tram stop and caught the next tram toward Bury - off-road running at a good speed, fun. For some reason I couldn't get a GPS signal to see just how fast we were going, which made me stop and think about getting an up-to-date version of the rollingstock book - the main reason I had decided to go to York. So I jumped ship at the next stop and headed across to the other platform.

It was crowded. Duh, it's the middle of peak time. Clever time to pick to just gunzel around, NOT. Ah well, I managed to show them what a good PT traveller can learn in the land of crowded trains and bad track - everyone else was holding on for dear life and I was standing there with my arms folded, toes responding to every bump (there were very few of them) and never even bumping into anyone. Later I saw coupled sets of trams running in the peak direction - smart idea, because obviously the Metrolink concept is catching on and people want to commute by tram. Or rather, high platform light rail vehicle - because these things behave like trains except when they happen to run on road median tracks.

While I was standing in my own sixth of a square meter of doorway I journey planned my way to York. Cool, it's just as easy to go from Manchester Victoria as from Piccadilly. That means I can bale out early and give the remaining pax a bit more space. Two years ago Victoria was having a bit of a facelift done. Now it's a lot further advanced but still obviously a work in progress. Looks like they're doing a good job, on first impressions - but I'll have to check it out in more detail later, because my train for Stalybridge is here.

It's a Class 150 Sprinter, same as we get on the Buxton line. They've had a refurb and it looks like they've tried to cram more seats in - which means the seats don't line up with the windows any more. Shame. It was a short ride, and we got to Stalybridge on time, with just 13 minutes before the Trans Pennine to York was due. NICE.

I headed for the station cafe and the staff were chatting about various things including special trains. There was a heritage diesel tour through yesterday, and there's a steam tour due tomorrow, but nothing today. Ah well!

In the middle of that a PA announcement came over saying that a fast train was coming through, not stopping. My camera jumped out of Clippy's case of its own volition, thrust itself into my hands and said "VIDEO IT!" I'm never one to disappoint my inanimate gunzelling tools, so I did. Unfortunately it wasn't fast at all, it limited itself to about 60km/h, but it was a Class 170 set in Trans-Pennine livery, so it was quite worthwhile.

Then my train was about due so I thanked the cafe staff for their tips and went to catch it. It was a Class 185, naturally. My favourite DMU of all time. Can I take it home?

It was fairly crowded so I got to show off my Australian adaptability by sitting cross legged in the doorway with Clippy on my lap. Now for those of you who aren't gunricers I have to remind you that the Class 185 are a Siemens build, same as ours except different. The stability of the ride is the same - if you've ever been on a Siemens passing (say) a V/Line loco hauled set, and compared the noise and the rocking to how it is on any other kind of train you'll know what I mean. The 185 has that same steadiness. I was sitting with my back against the door, and just occasionally another train would pass at speed. The door would recess very slightly, like when someone sits in the seat next to you. No more. That's why these things got an engineering excellence award! Now if only Siemens had acknowledged their mistake and fitted sanders to our sparks instead of leaving the job to Metro...

On the train I struck up a conversation with a dad and son who, as it turns out, are also heading to York to visit the trains. That made it a pleasant trip, train talk is train talk the world over.

York was amazing, as always. I started in the bookshop, where I picked up not only the rollingstock book I was after, but an atlas of rail lines in the UK, showing every track and every crossover just like Vicsig does. I dread to think how much of a hit my Visa card took for that but it's worth it.

The Great Hall was full of screaming kids, but I managed to avoid them long enough to - hey wait, go back a bit. A railway museum, full of screaming kids? In Oz we'd be lucky to get ten through in a day! But that's the point of York - it's more of a Scienceworks than a North Williamstown. OK can I go on with my story now? I avoided the kids and just admired the beautiful craftsmanship of the early high speed express locos - first a high wheeler 4-4-0, then, wonder on wonder, FOUR of Gresley's finest streamlined A4s! That would be like seeing a pair of 520s double heading the Southern Encounter, or triple 38s up the Blue Mountains. No wait, it's more like three and a half Rs to Seymour - really awesome, but not impossible to arrange.

Then I looked at the foreigners - a Shinkansen 0 (the original 1960s Bullet Train) and a Chinese KF7 steam loco with an amazing wartime history. The placards for the Chinese loco explained a bit of railway engineering in layman's terms - explained what loading gauge is and how it's different to track gauge, pointed out the leading, trailing and driving wheels, and explained the function of each set. We need some foreigners at North Williamstown - an ML3 maybe, since they were built alongside our Bs and Ss? Or a QJ just because they're awesome and historically significant?

There was a "Mallard Experience" ride, built like a full motion flight simulator but smaller. I must admit I was expecting a bit more than a CG rendering of a very highly dramatised account of the record breaking run, accompanied by random joltings. The least they could have done was make the jolting line up with the video. Ah well, they can't all be winners.

Then I went out to the viewing platform - a second storey balcony overlooking the down end of the station. Very conveniently there was a full PIDS screen there, identical to the ones on the major stations. Thanks Network Rail! The third entry down was interesting - "PRIVATE CHARTER 13:02". This promises to be worth hanging around for!

The viewing platform slowly filled with old men with white beards. About three minutes after scheduled time we heard a steam whistle and a long funnel with a name plate attached shuffled into Platform 5. A few minutes later it whistled out again and we could see it had a diesel behind, followed by a VERY long train of ultra-posh dining and parlour cars. Some charter! I videoed it but there were bratty kids arguing in the background so I might not bother uploading it.

It's really hard to be sure what you've done and what you haven't at York. There are several separate buildings and they're all easy to get to so there's no logical order to do them in. But by this time I was feeling peckish so I went to the Station Hall - home of the collection of LMS locos, quite a number of royal carriages, and a full on restaurant. 12 quid for a lamb pie, roast potatoes, veg and a bottle of old style lemonade (brewed like ginger beer) in a replica 19th century bottle. Beats the self-catered functions in the Spirit of Progress dining car!

Excuse me a minute while I check the guide book to see what I've missed. Ah yes, the warehouse. Everything not on show is stacked in pallet racking in a huge shed. It's carefully labelled by someone who's obviously a professional curator, and delicate things are in glass cases so the hoi polloi don't touch them. But other than that it's all open - go through, look at what you like. This is the storage vaults, the York equivalent of East Block!

Next door was the workshop. A Class 08 shunter was in for a paint job, there was another diesel loco stripped back to the frame, and behind them was... Flying Scotsman! Slightly modified from how it looked when it ran to Seymour in the company of an R with us behind it, but sure looking a lot better than when I saw it last, as a recognizable tender surrounded by frame, boiler and wheels all in different places. Do a good job on her, guys. Do it slowly, do it well.

From there, outside. Mmmm, what's that smell? Coal smoke! Oooooooh lookie there, it's Stephenson's Rocket! In steam, no less! Two pounds for a ride? I'll do it!

Standing in the front of the open wagon that carried the passengers it struck me - Stephenson probably built the original out of off-the-shelf components - a water barrel from the nearest cooper's shop, a chimney from whatever bits of pipe he could get cheap, body work from the coach builder that put in the lowest bid... and the people that built the replica had to copy every detail exactly as it was.

That was really it for the displays. The South Yard has a few exhibits under a tent-like structure, but only one is of particular interest. Remember 199, the "spam can"? "Send 199 back to the Other Railway", said the Fat Controller. Well this one is number 200. But you can't mistake the design, it looks familiar before you even see the 1Co-Co1 wheel arrangement.

One last walk around and it's time to go. I have an all day ticket for the Metrolink, after all!

If I've said it once I've said it hundreds of times - it pays to be a gunzel. How many people, after a few trips to England, would immediately know that a train from York to Liverpool Lime Street is going to be a high speed express stopping at Manchester Piccadilly? I had to run to catch it, so if I'd stopped to look at the PIDS I'd have missed it.

There were a bunch of train crew from the East Coast line, in full uniform. Checking out the competition? No, just heading for Leeds to start their shift. I got chatting with one, and we passed a pleasant trip talking about Australia and England and railways and whatever else came up. In England that's the way things are - pass one word and you automatically spend the rest of the trip chatting. That doesn't happen often in Australia.

And so back to Manchester Piccadilly. I headed straight down to the dungeon where the trams live and proceeded to ride every line apart from the Eccles, Bury and Alchingham lines, which I've done in previous years. It's quite a puzzling system, the Metrolink. Most of the track is really high quality, except for some which seems to be mounted on two sections of sleeper only as big as the chair, with a steel rod to hold them in gauge. They've invested in flying junctions at a lot of places, even when one of the lines only goes into a workshop, and yet they've got really restrictive speed limits on some of those very same junctions. Or the speed limit might be because it's a blind corner and they haven't put up convex mirrors to prevent accidents. There's works going on everywhere, including new lines being built, and yet some of the curves are so bad the flange squeal and vibration is downright painful. The top speed of the trams seems to be 100km/h or more, but at the outer reaches of the system where the stations are spaced out and a bit of speed would be nice, the track speed limit means a journey takes a lot longer than it should. What puzzled me most was the very restrictive rule about clearance - there were signs up on most bridges saying "Restricted clearance for distance of x meters", which just said you can't drive a truck beside the track without fouling the line. What's the point of that? People everywhere have to deal with bridges, it's no big deal! And horror of horrors, there's a few single track sections! A lot of the tech is cool though, like the interior lights that turn on automatically on a sensor, so they're off most of the time but kick in when the tram goes into a tunnel. That's nice. Most of the new sections are fully separated, including a couple of grade separations that look new. A few sections of on-street running but not much.

By the time I'd ridden every line and got back to Piccadilly it was getting dark. Time to head home and upload a whole stack of photos! 6am to 10pm is quite long enough, if I wanted to be on my feet for those hours I'd have stayed at work.

Tomorrow, Alice in Wonderland. Chris will probably tell that story better than I could.

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