East Midlands Three in Seven: Day Three

Here we are once more. It’s another grey and ever-so-slightly damp day as I wait on Willington station for the 10:25 Cardiff – Nottingham again.

It will be overstating it if I said I’ve “agonised” over the day’s timetable, but I’ve certainly given it a lot of thought. The basic intention is to explore the southern and western extents of the rover ticket. I’ve explored various permutations and the upshot is that if Nuneaton features in the mix in any way, I’ll have a 2½ hour wait in Derby tonight which, frankly, I don’t really want to do. The original plan as I published earlier in this blog has me going anticlockwise and heading for Stoke first. However, I’ve done more-or-less the same journey in that direction before, and don’t really want to wholly retread the footsteps. So it’s looking like heading south, down the Midland mainline to Bedford, east-to-west over to Bletchley, then back north (with an hour in Milton Keynes) to Stoke. Then back over the North Staffs to Derby and home, hopefully, for tea time.

  • Willington 10:25 — Derby 10:34
  • Derby 11:01 — Leicester 11:23
  • Leicester 11:32 — Bedford 12:17
  • Bedford 12:55 — Bletchley 13:38
  • Bletchley 13:43 — Milton Keynes Central 13:48
  • Milton Keynes 14:50 — Stoke on Trent 15:48
  • Stoke 16:33 — Derby 17:28
  • Derby 18:13 — Willington 18:20

Willington Departure

Let’s see how that pans out…

Only two other passengers this morning. I abandoned my initial plan on boarding of occupying the rear compartment as a young family were in residence and a combination of their offspring and associated hardware in the form of a medium size pantechnicon effectively blocked any access. I found a seat in the main compartment, rudely awaking a bloke snoozing on the opposite side by accidentally knocking his leg. Sorry mate.

At Derby the 11:01 to St Pancras (1C35) is right time passing Dore, so what else to do but get a coffee. Entertainment was provided in the form of a DCR driver having brought a Class 31 light engine from Crewe, doing a bit of shunting to stable it in Gas Tank Siding along with seeming long-term resident Jeremiah Dixon.

Two late from Derby but who’s counting (other than me!)

Leicester Departure

On to the 11:32 from Leicester (1B36) which is pretty much ‘all stations’ to St. Pancras – spookily yet again two late… Still two late as we arrived at Market Harborough. After a brief delay, there was announcement that the train would be delayed here “pending police attending”. Weird. There was a modicum of stress in the guard’s voice – not panic exactly, but it sounded as though some adrenaline was coursing. Then, after only a couple of minutes we set off without further announcements. Presumably the announcement — or the threat it conveyed —  did the trick and the awkward passenger got off? Just as well. With all due respect, I dread to think what BTP’s response time would have been?

The train was full leaving Kettering. Nice touch by a DB Schenker driver who was occupying a seat with an empty one next to him. He gave it up for a duo of middle age ladies and swapped to what looked like the last empty seat in the carriage so they could sit together. Could get vey cozy from Wellingborough.

It is noticeable that while there looks to have been plenty of bridges raised north of Bedford for the Corby (and, later, northwards through Derby to Sheffield) electrification, precious few mast bases seem to have been installed. There’s lot of work still to do. In the context of a scheduled completion in 27 months (Dec 2019), I guess they’re doing alright??

Bedford Arrival

After a brief tour of inspection of Bedford station is was onto the London Midland Class 150 (2S14) for the amble across Bedfordshire to Bletchley. Only about half a dozen on board at departure but a similar number got on at Bedford St Johns, quarter of a mile or so up the branch. Overall the service probably paid its way. There were maybe one or two of the ten intermediate stops where no one appeared to get on or off. An enjoyable little journey – strikingly different countryside to yesterday, but no less rural for the most part.

On the approach to Bletchley I had a little inward chuckle at the sight of a long abandoned hopper wagon. It has been there so long trees are growing out of it. Rather than do anything long term about it, someone has decided to mount the horizontal red & white board representing the buffer stops on the wagon – shortening the siding by one wagon length, but doing the trick. I hope it’s there for many more years.

I have a potentially tight connection of five mins for the Northampton train on platform 3 at Bletchley as we arrive in to platform 5. 

Of course I needn’t have worried! Five minutes turned out to be almost an eternity. Bletchley station is interesting in that the fast line platforms are fenced off and only used/accessible in out-of-course circumstances. An anti-suicide precaution I guess. The automatic announcements still warn passengers to stand back from the edge as a fast train approaches!

Fast line platform at Bletchley

That was probably the shortest leg of the trip… 13:43 to 13:46 on the Euston to Northampton (2N15),  leaving me with 62 minutes to pass in Milton Keynes. Must be lunchtime. One more thing which amused me was the guard of a down Virgin Pendolino as I arrived using a good old fashioned green flag to dispatch her train. How delightfully low tech!

Welcome to Milton Keynes Central

I know it has its detractors, but I quite like what Milton Keynes attempts to to do. Yes, it’s very concrete and modern, but its use of wide open spaces and a brave stab at segregating pedestrians from road traffic has a lot to commend it. But… And I suspect this is typically British thing: It is badly let down by a complete lack of long term maintenance. Sure, I saw a litter picker (itself quite remarkable) who was doing a good job, and I guess graffiti gets cleaned off every now & again. However, what’s ignored are the broken & uneven paving slabs, the missing wall tiles, the weeds and the overgrown planted areas. I know keeping on top of all this costs money and someone has to pay for it. Not doing so doesn’t make it any less right though – especially given the lofty ideals this place evidently set out with.

Milton Keynes underpass

Milton Keynes road

Milton Keynes Station Square

I struck out in a straight line from the station in search of lunch. I kept walking and walking, past offices, an occasional hotel and yet more offices. I was heading toward where the shops were alleged to be according to an information board outside the station. After what seemed about a mile I gave up and turned back to station to explore the cluster of food shops around the, actually quite striking, Station Square. I ended up with a sandwich from M&S paying not only the M&S premium but the South East tax too.

I returned to the platform to chomp my lunch, punctuated by the regular passage of expresses. It is quite some experience to have a Pendolino whip through at 125(?) mph, even though I’m a good 5m or so from the platform edge. The fences at Bletchley are starting to make more sense now! I recall from my last sojourn here, spending some time typing my blog on one of the benches toward the end of the platform, having my welfare and immediate intentions gently questioned by a patrolling security man. I note that still goes on and I’m sure is tragically very necessary.

Pendolino to Stoke

Waiting for the 14:50 Virgin Trains service for Manchester (1H30) on platform 6 (which was changed to platform 5 at the last moment because of a late running Chester service preceding it — only the other face of the same platform, so not a big issue). Non-stop to Stoke —  a journey of 58 minutes which I think represents pretty good value on a “local” rover ticket (and it strikes me I’m a long way from “the East Midlands” as it happens, too). There were a lot of folk waiting for it, but far more got off than on. Seats were available, but those with a window rather than nothing but pillar, were at a premium. I’m astonished to realise that there is no at-seat power in standard class on a Pendolino. Good job I’m suitably prepared.

I love the part of this journey where the train parallels the M1 around Watford Gap, going nearly twice as fast as the cars.

Into Stoke at 15:52 alighting to a lovely sunny afternoon. It had certainly been an invigorating romp through the countryside. Panda has very kindly (and prophetically) Tweeted to remind me what awaits for my ride to Derby — and at rush hour to boot. There’s always the option of retracing my steps back as far as Tamworth but I reckon I’ll take my chances with the Comedy Branch Line.

Sunny Stoke

Certainly enjoying the wait in the sunshine at the south end of Stoke station – away from the gaggle of passengers waiting the various services to call before mine. I’m awaiting 1K20, the 16:33 EMT Crewe to Derby which left Crewe on time.

The scrum for the Derby train at Stoke

The single car Class 153 — standard for the line —  was full and standing on leaving Stoke. At least the driver had a cheery word as I was boarding! There were about 40 passengers standing as far as Longton (which is not very far!) and still half a dozen once we disgorged a load there, allowing me to get a seat though. The vast majority are students (again). By the time we departed from Blythe Bridge the train was only half full and I was able to enjoy the rest of the journey in relative comfort (and space).

The ride over the North Staffs was old ground which is usually enjoyable, rarely remarkable — and that certainly applied today. The theme of the whole trip was continued by being a pretty consistent two minutes late all the way.

The North Staffs railcar in its bay

It is still sunny over in Derby. Indeed, the display in front of the Roundhouse says it’s 21 degrees, which isn’t at all bad for nearly October. (While I was typing that it briefly went up to 22 degrees!)

Back to Willington on the 18:10 off Derby. About a dozen or so got off (and as many from the service which arrives in the opposite direction at the same time). Oh, and it was … two minutes late!

Postscript

This three day mini escapade was a last minute substitute for my original plan to do a full severn day all line rover ticket, stopping over in real ale pubs each night, as I’ve done twice in the past. However, for a combination of reasons which I’m unable to articulate fully, it didn’t feel right at this point — so the plan got scaled-back to this. As I type, on the evening of my return from the third day trip, I am sure that was the right decision. Despite staying relatively local, I’ve had a great time. Just the right mix of branch line rural railway and mainline expresses. Some new ground, some old ground. Most importantly no dramas — I’ve managed to not fall out with anyone or throw a strop about anything… so all-in-in a victory!

The seven day trip will likely happen in springtime 2017 — watch this space!

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