THREE YEARS after they last ran, it is good to see more evidence of passengers being attracted back onto the rail network following the COVID-19 hiatus, with the return this week (15 May 2022) of seasonal through services from London Paddington to Newquay.
While the Cornish resort has lost its summer Cross-Country (XC) services from the north, until 9 September there is a 09.04 Paddington-Newquay on weekdays, with direct services from Newquay to the capital departing at 11.18 and 14.55, the former even offering a restaurant service from Plymouth.
Paying an overdue return to charming Parbold, mid-way along the West Lancashire Line between Wigan and Southport, it was interesting see a significant change in rolling stock since my previous visit five years ago.
As services along the route run extensively under the wires on journeys between Southport and Stalybridge or Alderley Edge via Manchester, many are now formed of the bi-mode Class 769 units that have been created by adding a diesel engine to former Class 319 units.
Last week’s trip to Bromfield prompts me to take advantage of some bargain-priced “Great British Rail Sale” tickets and pay a return visit to the hideous-looking signal box at Craven Arms, just six miles to the north, where significant signalling changes have taken place since my previous visit in September 2016.
Craven Arms Crossing Signal Box was re-built in 2000, when a steel structure was constructed around a life-expired GWR box dating from 1947, with the latter being subsequently removed, while the signalling equipment including a 30-lever frame remained to control a fine array of lower quadrant semaphore signals.
Many of our oldest surviving signal boxes are on the Marches Line south of Shrewsbury and, after featuring Leominster and Woofferton Junction last year (both 1875), it is time to pay a return visit to an even older box at Bromfield, which dates from 1873 and stands next to Ludlow Racecourse.
Bromfield station closed as long ago as 1958, but the signal box lives on, with a total of five semaphore signals controlled from its 29-lever frame and the box signalling a section of route between the boxes at Onibury to the north and Woofferton Junction to the south.
After my first ever visit to Skegness, getting photos for my signalling book, I went on to write that it was our finest seaside terminus, with an impressive station building, a listed signal box and an intact six-platform layout, with semaphores and shunting signals controlling exit from each of those six platforms.
Since that March 2017 visit there has been a slight rationalisation of the layout, with removal of the exit signal and a section of rail from platform 6, yet much of the charm remains, along with all of the other semaphores I had photographed five years ago.
WORCESTER is like Shrewsbury in being one of our finest outposts of mechanical signalling, with a total of eight signal boxes controlling at least some semaphores along the 25 miles of route from Norton Junction, south of the city, Droitwich Spa to the north and Ledbury to the west.
Among the busiest and most interesting of this octet is Droitwich Spa, where a large Great Western Railway box dating from 1907 stands some 400 yards north of the station in the fork between the routes to Birmingham via Kidderminster on its left, or front side, and the line to Birmingham via Bromsgrove to the right, or rear of the box.
SHREWSBURY has long been the finest outpost of mechanical signalling in Britain, so after a pleasant day last summer at Sutton Bridge Junction, south of the town, it is time to take a look at another of the station’s four signal boxes.
Crewe Junction is a fine and listed London & North Western Railway box dating from 1903, standing at the north end of the station within sight of its better known sibling, the magnificent and newly-refurbished Severn Bridge Junction to the south of the station.
Rover and ranger tickets are a great way to cover a lot of track in a particular area, as I had discovered a few years ago when I travelled every one of the 268 miles of track in Cornwall in a 15-hour marathon from Saltash, using a £10.00 Ride Cornwall ticket.
Spending the night in Chester after a rain-affected visit to Peak Forest and Buxton, my thoughts turned to the Merseyrail network, which I had long hoped to complete, having only previously travelled the routes from Liverpool to Chester, Kirkby and New Brighton.
Discovering that a £5.60 Merseyrail Day Saver is cheaper than a day return to Liverpool from Chester, I set myself a target of travelling the entire 75-mile Merseyrail network in a day, beginning at Chester, where a service leaves at exactly the moment a Day Saver becomes valid (09.30) and hopefully reaching Liverpool Lime Street by about 18.00.
Platform 4 at Helsby station in North Cheshire is not somewhere you battle the crowds in order to board your train. It briefly comes to life just once a day, when a Northern Rail Class 156 unit prepares to set off on its 10-minute, 5¼ mile, journey to Ellesmere Port.
Coming to life is probably a bit of an exaggeration, as there are few takers for a “Parliamentary” service that is run at times seemingly designed to be as useless as possible to anyone contemplating a journey.
Having a weakness for anything narrow gauge, the offer of some cheap as chips Ryanair flights to and from the Bulgarian capital tempts me to pay a springtime return visit to that country’s remarkable state-run and sole-surviving narrow gauge railway, the 125km (78-mile) route from Septemvri, south-east of Sofia, into the Rhodope Mountains close to the Greek border.
When the 2,800-mile round trip from Stansted to Sofia had cost less than £28.00 it means my four-day mini-break came in at a remarkably modest total of just £195.65, including flights, all rail travel, accommodation in Sofia (one night) and Velingrad (two nights), as well all my restaurant food and drink.