Tuesday, 19 June 2007

A Sunday Stroll to Stafford

In 1962, the former L.M.S. lines in the West Midlands were being electrified and re-signalled. I wrote the following report at the time (in fountain pen!) describing a roundabout journey from Wolverhampton to Stafford and return on Sunday 15th July 1962 whilst diversions were in progress. I've edited the original text a little to try to make it more generally understandable.

A Sunday Stroll to Stafford - and when trains are being diverted round the Princes End Branch, stroll is the right word!

Passengers for Stafford and the North from Wolverhampton were supposed to catch a special diesel to Walsall, to connect with the diverted expresses, but I wanted to travel over the Princes End branch, so I had to go via Dudleyport. It took much consulting of the Special Traffic Notices on the day before, to decide on a suitable connection, but a 9.45 am DMU was shown from Wolverhampton, to connect at Dudleyport with the Blackpool excursion, 1Z63.

However, when I tried to book a "Return Dudleyport" at Wolverhampton I was told "There's no train for two hours!"
"What about the train to connect with the Blackpool excursion?" I enquired.
"There's no excursion advertised today" I was told. Oh well, I bought the ticket anyway and wandered onto the platform. A large crowd was gathered and soon a twinset DMU rattled into the Down Bay. The happy passengers bundled onto the train, whilst a commodious supply of alcohol was piled into the luggage compartment.
"Yes, this connects with the Blackpool" I was told. All most perplexing. Still, I hopped on board and, a few minutes late, we departed, making rather poor time to Dudleyport.

At Dudleyport, 1Z63, due to depart at 9.55 am, was already in the down platform taking water at the column, with 70047 at the head end. I followed the crowd through the subway to the down side, where the Inspector was proclaiming
"Wolverhampton Corporation Party – first three coaches. Others behind." But there were no others, apart from me! So that was it! Three reserved coaches had been laid on for the party, and the twinset DMU was to connect. So I'd gatecrashed a Party Special! Oh well, having watched the drinks being transferred (through the 'wrong side' of the train across the 'six foot') from the DMU to 1Z63, I purchased a second ticket to Stafford, price 6 shillings (30p). After 1Z63 has left, another 2-car DMU arrived on the down and hid in the loop so that it could be passed by my train, 2H67 for Manchester (and another DMU, of course).

In a slight drizzle, we set off on 2H67 and trundle down to Tipton, but the 'pegs' (signals) don't come off, because there's a DMU coming off the Curve (because of the overhang on bogie vehicles, passenger trains are not allowed to pass on the Curve). After a short delay, we made a sedate progress round the Curve, but accelerate well towards Princes End (by the way, with a new driver from Dudleyport) and rattle down the bank, past the cooling towers of Ocker Hill and round the curve and through Wednesbury. A smart pull up the bank to Mestycroft but Bescot Curve's distant is 'on' and we grind to a halt at his home signal. It soon comes 'off' but the young signalman casually sticks out a "red 'un" (red flag). After a few minutes standing outside the box (why, I wonder?) the driver moves off and, almost immediately, the starter clears. We wander down to Walsall, where the driver is changed again.

The platform starter clears and we set off at about 11.10 am. We rush through Ryecroft at a frightening pace, past the closed box at Birchills and find Bloxwich's distant 'on'. His home is seen to be 'off' but, suddenly 'crack – crack – crack', a deafening sound when riding in the front of a DMU, three detonators and a flagman running across the track with a red flag. "Bridge Painters North of the station" he warns and we move off cautiously when the flagman displays a yellow flag. The painters are perched on top of a tall ladder under the bridge, with long distemper brushes splashing around, blocking the other line but precariously close to the 'down'. We make an uneventful run to Cannock, passing a lovely switchback presumably caused by mining subsidence (15 m.p.h. in this direction) at Great Wyrley, near the Mid Cannock pits. East Cannock Junction's distant is against us and we get one 'shot' (detonator) and a yellow flag at his home. We pass a gang working on the track by the starter and get a' green' from the flagman.

After Hednesford and its colliery sidings, we rush across Brindley Heath, at about 65 m.p.h. at least. Brereton Sidings home, with distant for Rugeley, is giving a brilliant light. This and the starter are semaphores with electrically-lit spectacles. We rattle into a renovated Rugeley Trent Valley down platform, where drivers are quickly changed once again and we set off for Stafford. The boxes at Rugeley retain their old frames, with mechanical operation of local points and all colour-light signals. We rattle along the slow to Colwich, where the line becomes double track to Stafford. All trace of the station and original signal box have disappeared from Colwich and a new box is in operation on the up side at the London end.

We plunge into Shugborough tunnel at about 60 m.p.h., sounding the horn – quite an experience as we mount the curve and the white silhouette of the tunnel end comes into sight and the sunlight shines on the rail tops. We rush through Milford, the original box looking a trifle out of place in the middle of a new layout and we pass a monotonous succession of colour-lights, labelled 'QE' for Queensville, with the new overhead catenary wavering from side to side above. We pass the loop at Baswich, the box standing lonely, stripped of instruments and frame, with just a row of track circuit indicators hanging forlornly at 'Track Occupied'. We pass the box at Queensville, getting a double yellow, then, rounding the curve, a yellow and we grind to a halt at Stafford No. 1's home signal, leaning over on the steep cant of the famous Queensville Curve. We are held here for a gruelling five minutes or more and must have been called past the signal, because it was showing red as we moved off. We rattle over the crossing at Trent Valley Junction, with gangs of men all over the place and the Wolverhampton line being re-aligned. At Stafford No. 3, the colour-light home has been changed from position light to theatre-type route indication and we roll into Platform 3, just before 11.45 am, about seven minutes late.

Stafford is somewhat changed! The outline of the new station is now marked by the massive concrete beams which have appeared. A crane train was working in the North end of platform 1, blocking the Up Through. All the signals in the area are now colour-light. The passenger facilities are in a state of limbo, with platforms unmade, temporary waiting rooms in use but the new enclosed footbridge is open to passengers.

The up Merseyside Express calls at Platform 4, with 'City of Birmingham' at the front end. The following train is 1G10, the Bangor – Birmingham and I found a good position at the front, right behind 'Lord Kitchener'. The smiling driver was rather fond of the siren and he made like 'In the American Backwoods' to Rugeley. Just before Stafford No. 1, we passed a crane gang. The crane was balancing a 60 foot top member between two side posts for electrification right above the running road – a Sword of Damocles, indeed!

We make good speed to Rugeley, the driver playing a tune on the siren at every gang we pass and inside Shugborough Tunnel. Between Baswich (the loop and Salt Siding) and Rugeley we pass a wiring train on the up slow, with a 350 h.p. diesel electric. The driver stops at the North end of Rugeley, by a group of 'pilot' drivers, but he is told that his pilot is further along. The train moves slowly into the station, on the through line, and waits while the pilot unhurriedly ambles across the tracks and clambers aboard. The pilot takes charge and moves her off. A beautiful, uncontrolled slip makes a good sound and he makes quite a meal of it pulling out onto the Cannock Line. A sorry sight in one of the sidings at Rugeley: a train of bogie bolsters carrying the mortal remains of semaphore signalling on the Trent Valley! Tubular posts, with rusted arms bent during removal in a most pathetic way, lattice posts, also two-aspect and searchlight colour-light signals and wooden bracket signals.

On the return journey, we get three 'shots' North of Bloxwich and the flagman comes out of a permanent way gang hut, to warn of bridge painters. But the painters have gone to lunch and we rattle on down to Walsall No. 3, where we are held for a moment. As we pull into the platform, a DMU rattles through in the same direction on an adjoining line, with Walsall No. 2's distant off. The Wolverhampton diesel parcels unit is shunting around in the North End Bay. I detrain and watch as the DMU backs out of platform 3 towards Ryecroft, then coasts down behind 1G10 which, after taking water, departs towards Wednesbury. The twinset DMU follows 1G10 down the platform and stops, to form the connecting service to Wolverhampton.

With me installed in the front compartment, we are soon off. We just catch Walsall No. 1's distant off as we pass Walsall No. 2's starter (sounds like jibberish!) but we are very nearly brought to a stand at Pleck before his home comes off for the Darlaston line. We rattle along towards home. The boxes along this line have been repainted, in pale cream and a strange dark green/brown. At Willenhall's distant, we sight a flagman with a "yeller 'un" and we get one 'shot'. We draw slowly into the station and a Pilotman, wearing mackintosh and trilby, clambers aboard from the wrong side. We move off on the right line. At Portobello, they're relaying over the level crossing. There are two engineer's trains standing on the up, their engines towards Bescot, the rear train uncoupled in the middle and the front half drawn forward a few yards. The single line ends at Wednesfield Heath and we stop to set down the Pilotman. An engine is standing on the up, waiting the road or, perhaps, Pilotman's Engine? We trundle into the bay at Wolverhampton, concluding a interesting, if devious, trip to Stafford.