Published: 22nd April 2015
So far as passenger trains are concerned, diesel locomotive haulage on the main line is virtually a thing of the past and can now best be experienced on a heritage railway. Therefore, many such railways feature at least one weekend each year devoted to trains hauled by diesels.
Such events are often referred to as diesel galas, but the size and scope of these occasions varies considerably from railway to railway, showing as much variety as do the railways themselves.
In some cases, advertised diesel events are very low-key affairs, comprising a few resident diesel shunters running in place of the usual steam loco, but nevertheless providing something different for the traveller and photographer.
The next example of this is at The Chinnor & Princes Railway where a diesel gala is being held on April 26. There is a free connecting vintage bus service from Princes Risborough station to Chinnor for this event.
On other lines, a good example of which is the Swanage Railway, the annual event is a major occasion spread over several days. Each year in May, Swanage features a wide and interesting selection of locos from other railways all over the country which come to the railway for the weekend. Many of these arrive together by rail in convoy hauled by a loco that is passed for main line operation. They enter the Swanage Railway via its connection with the national network near Wareham.
Most years, the visiting locos include at least one making its debut heading trains on a heritage railway following acquisition and/or restoration. This year’s event is on May 8-10 and as ever, is a top priority for diesel enthusiasts to attend.
Most of the other bigger railways with main line connections, which enable them to stage events with visiting locos, have diesel galas at least one weekend each season. These include the Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway, East Lancashire Railway, Great Central Railway, Midland Railway-Butterley, Mid-Norfolk Railway, Nene Valley Railway, North Norfolk Railway, North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Severn Valley Railway, Spa Valley Railway and the West Somerset Railway.
On the other hand, the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, one of the first heritage lines to introduce such an event every year and which became a premier occasion every summer, no longer hosts a diesel weekend.
Another big classic traction event added to the calendar in recent years is at the Didcot Railway Centre. This is held two weeks after the Swanage Railway’s gala on May 25. There is also a 1940s heritage diesel unit weekend on April 25 and 26.
Although only a short demonstration line is available on which the locos take it in turns to perform, an interesting photogenic opportunity is provided throughout the day with the locos posed in front to the traditional GWR steam shed. This takes place on May 23-25.
It is not only historic classes from the past that appear at diesel galas. Today’s freight companies often send along examples from their current fleet giving the public the chance to examine at close quarters (and ride behind) locos not so easily observed on the network. These can include the very latest examples, such as the brand-new DRS Class 68.
Diesels also operate demonstration goods trains offering interesting scenarios for photographers and sometimes also offer an unusual ride for passengers paying a little extra to travel in the brake van. The Avon Valley is able to timetable such a train to run back and forth throughout the day, while the West Somerset Railway, for instance, confines this to very early in the day only, to avoid delaying the all-important passenger services.
Some railways advertise their galas as ‘mixed traction’. This means both steam and diesel power is used. A thought is that members of the public turning up unaware of the operation of diesels that day may be disappointed if there is not a steam loco available to haul their train.
This is a more recent development by some railways, most notably the Llangollen Railway, East Lancs Railway, and Ecclesbourne Valley Railway, in which heritage DMUs (diesel multiple units) take centre stage. There are many people interested in this type of vehicle, which is no longer available on the main line, where passengers can view the scenery through the front and rear cabs.
Even the most enthusiastic of railways like to ensure maximum patronage for diesel galas and these can be held in conjunction with another event to attract visitors. The Swanage Railway for example, holds its annual beer festival the same weekend as the diesel event, while others may have a vintage car weekend perhaps. The Avon Valley Railway is holding its 12th annual Bitton Beer festival on June 5 and 6.
Most major diesel events are held in the early or later part of the season, and not in the high season summer months when steam is very much to the fore and the railways are well patronised by family visitors. The diesel gala is seen as attracting additional enthusiasts during the quieter periods of the spring and autumn.
It is generally accepted that the majority of people visiting heritage railways are the general public with families, and not railway enthusiasts as such. This market is thought to be mainly interested in steam traction and don’t expect to find ‘modern traction’ on a preserved railway.
The percentage of enthusiast visitors to diesel galas is invariably greater than for the railway’s other events. However, the diesel fan is usually keen to travel on the railway to get ‘haulage’ by the various locos and therefore buys an all-day rover ticket providing the railway with good income that day. This contrasts with the image that some railway managers appear to have of steam enthusiasts, believing they only wish to stand lineside and take photographs.
However, if a diesel event has not been visited before it is well worth considering as there is so much variety to be found in these locos. Despite what many might say, they are not ‘lifeless boxes on wheels’. Locos such as ‘Deltics’, Class 40s, 37 and 20s in particular, sound really good, even when just standing still in the station as their engines tick over demonstrating latent power. When they started up and pull away they can be as exciting as any sizzling steam loco, whether you are on board, or observing from the lineside.
Those travelling to heritage railways should always check beforehand as to what might be running the day of their intended visit. Either to ensure diesels are running if such an event appeals, or not, if they are to be avoided. Such information is available on the railway’s timetable leaflet, its website or Facebook account.