Spitfire Railtours announced their intention to run two “Routes & Branches” railtours from London.
37516 + Load 6 (S5216, 1860, S9104, 3093, 99125, 13440) + 37685 Loch Arkaig
London Paddington – Old Oak Common Flyover – Reading – Basingstoke – Eastleigh – Brockenhurst – Lymington Pier – Brockenhurst – Eastleigh – Basingstoke – Reading – Twyford – Henley-on-Thames – Twyford – Maidenhead – Bourne End – Maidenhead – Acton Wells Junction – Willesden Junction – London Euston
Earlier this year, Spitfire Railtours announced their intention to run two “Routes & Branches” railtours from London, covering railway lines rarely visited by loco-hauled trains or charter operators. The first of these, “The Routes & Branches 2” ran as intended back in April, though the other was postponed from April 1 until the night of July 15/16. The plan was to visit five “rare” branches for railtours – Lymington Pier, Henley-on-Thames, Bourne End, Windsor & Eton Central and St Albans Abbey, with haulage provided by a West Coast Railways Class 37 at either end of a short rake of coaches – the reduced load necessary due to the short platforms at some of the branch termini.
An early casualty was the Windsor & Eton Central branch, which was cut from the plan weeks before the tour ran. However, it was not the only piece of “rare track” to be lost – a possession on the slow lines at the southern end of the West Coast Main Line meant that access to the St Albans Abbey branch at Watford Junction would therefore be impossible, so it too was cut from the schedule. In addition, the tour was intended to arrive at London Euston with plenty of time to allow for a connection with the early morning departure of another Spitfire Railtours charter, “The Cambrian Coast Express” to Aberystwyth, again with a pair of Class 37s.
Departure of the train was from London Paddington. The two maroon English Electric Type Threes and their six green and maroon coaches, part of the smartly-kept Green Train rake of coaching stock, based at West Coast’s Southall base, looked rather incongruous amongst the Friday London rush-hour, lining up alongside First Great Western HSTs and Heathrow Express EMUs on the blocks of London’s gateway to all points west. Though perhaps even more incongruous was the sight of over a hundred Class 37 enthusiasts clutching cameras, trying to get photographs of the locomotives prior to departure, the oblivious and seemingly endless crowds of commuters wandering past the train, hardly batting an eyelid as the locomotives loudly idled away.
The first piece of rare track traversed by the train was the flyover east of Old Oak Common depot, before proceeding westwards down the Great Western Main Line towards Reading, 37685 Loch Arkaig growling away sweetly at the head of the train. Off the main line at Reading, turning south, Basingstoke on the South West Main Line came next. After a pathing stop in Wallers Ash Loop, the train continued to Eastleigh, where a fish and chip supper was loaded onto the train for passengers, as the only onboard catering facility was snacks and drinks provided in the miniature buffet. This was a popular option taken up by many of those onboard, and we spent the rest of the journey round the Solent coast to Lymington Pier munching away.
Lymington Pier was reached at around 2330 in the pouring rain – a small group of hardy enthusiasts huddled by the buffer stops with their cameras as the Class 37 rolled in. Everybody onboard who had not succumbed to slumbers piled off the train, grabbed a quick photo or two and then hurried back aboard before the precipitation soaked them to the skin. 37516 led the ensemble back up the branch, heading for Eastleigh, where we paused once again, amongst CrossCountry “Voyager” empty coaching stock moves and an otherwise deserted station.
Having been up since the crack of dawn and travelled down from West Cumbria on Spitfire’s positioning tour from Preston to London Euston, upon leaving Eastleigh, I took the opportunity to lie back and enjoy the sounds of one of Carnforth’s finest working away at the head of the train. Though a keen photographer, I did not fancy two more bouts of saturation from the rain, which by now had well and truly set-in, by the buffer stops at both Henley-on-Thames and Bourne End, so opted to stay on the train and have a bit of shut-eye – a “bit” that lasted until we were passing Camden carriage sidings at first light, on the approach to London Euston!
While one might argue that the mileage “doesn’t count if you’re asleep”, the darkness of the middle of the night means that the view from the train windows is effectively non-existent, save for the occasional station flashing by in a flicker of orange tungsten lighting and a few ghostly night trains passing in the opposite direction. At 0430, we arrived at London Euston, and what a sight was to be seen, as 200 half-asleep enthusiasts made a good job of re-enacting what could be termed the “Night of the Living Dead” as they disembarked from the train onto Platform 16, many taking the opportunity to head to the toilets for “sprucing up” before returning to the platform to wait for The Cambrian Coast Express, which was departing less than an hour and a half later.
The tour was fully loaded, which was very pleasing to see, many passengers coming specifically to get certain branches “in the book”. Having provided the positioning tour from Preston, which basically ran in order to transport the empty stock for the following day’s “The Cambrian Coast Express” from Carnforth to Southall, Spitfire were able to bring many passengers from the north to London cheaply, in order for them to spend the night roving on the “Routes & Branches”, before heading to Aberystwyth the following day. Over a thousand miles of loco-haulage with a total of seven Class 37s over the weekend has proved to be a very successful formula for Spitfire Railtours.