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Great Western Tracker 23/03/2013
In the first ever railtour joint collaboration between the Branch Line Society and The Locomotive & Carriage Institution, 140 members of both organisations enjoyed a highly unusual day out railtouring courtesy of First Great Western. Despite the weather being against us, the highly successful fixture helped raise just short of £2000 for charity and paved the way for further activity between all three parties.
Leaving platform 12 of Bristol Temple Meads right time, using 3-car Class 150 150927, we enjoyed the blessing of a "higher order" with the train despatch assisted by First Great Western Bristol and the West Railway Chaplin Reverend Alan Thorpe. The Railway Mission benefited from a donation of £500 towards their important work at Bristol Temple Meads as a result of the charter. Once away from Bristol, we were able to enjoy our first highlight of the day by completing both the carriage wash line and carriage line at Bedminster, before reversing and taking the highly sought after Goods Avoiding Line past St Phillip's Marsh depot. Both Class 08 depot shunters were visible as were various "internal user" vehicles including Mark II training coach 5636. The infamous Mark 1 "Cinema Coach" was unfortunately out of sight.
Back at Bristol running nearly 30 minutes early, we proceeded along the "Down Through", before making our way to Yatton to traverse the Down Loop. By now, it was becoming clear that flooding on the Heathfield branch would curtail our progress there but with the assistance of a Network Rail pilot man, we would later reach 1m and 10 chains along the branch. Arriving at Taunton platform 3 early, we took the opportunity for a leg stretch and photo stop whilst we awaited arrival of first change of train crew, travelling towards us from Exeter. Whilst on the platform, news came through of a track circuit fault at Tiverton Loops (formerly Tiverton Junction), meaning we would have to wait until another day to traverse the Down Passenger Loop, but we were reassured all was fine on the "Up" side for our journey back.
With our crew change complete, we set away early for our final pick up at platform 3 of Exeter St David's before proceeding up the hill and into Exmouth Junction Turnback Siding, as far as mile post 170.09. Passengers were concerned that the rarely used Exeter Central bay (platform 1) was occupied by ECS but this was planned so we could access the Turnback Siding. After reversal, we proceeded into platform 1 at Exeter Central for a further photo stop, and repeated the shunt again into the Turnback Siding, before proceeding on to St David's and into Exeter New Yard (Waterloo Yard). With thanks to Network Rail, we arrived via Road 2 and proceeded down the Shunt Spur to the end of line before completing Road 3 to the buffers. It had been planned to traverse Road 1 but this was occupied by a Class 159, deposited there after a driver has sadly taken ill earlier in the day.
Once away from Exeter St David's 12 minutes late, we were able to get the charity raffle underway which, along with a loose change collection and the sale of branded window decals, raised £452 for Railway Children. This was a "top up" to a donation of £1000 raised on behalf of First Great Western and both organisations from the fare box revenue. Proceeding along the highly scenic sea wall, we took the Down Passenger Loop / Platform 1 at Dawlish Warren, observing the Great Western liveried camping coaches still used for holiday makers today and managed by the Great Western Railway Staff Association. Through Totnes, we took the Down Main, where it became apparent that water was running low in the toilet and re-tanking would need to be arranged at Laira TMD. Leaving the main at Laira Junction (243m 28ch), we travelled via Embankment Siding No 5 before calling at Friary Junction Flushing Platform next to the Down Arrival line, having crossover over and back to avoid running through the carriage washer! Here our excellent train crew quickly refilled the toilet tank and we set off after a swift reversal, (back towards Mount Gould Jn), to the end of the line at Plymouth Friary via the Up Departure road.
As if to tease us at this point, we could only look longingly at the Cattewater branch which will be the prime target for the Great Western Tracker 2.0, currently being planned for mid-October. With over ninety people already on the waiting list, the re-run is also likely to be a complete sell out. Returning to and coming to a stand at Mount Gould Junction, the General Secretaries from both organisations took a brief quiet moment to grab a coffee from Martin Hardy who was manning the catering trolley for the day, and did an excellent job of looking his passengers, even if he was somewhat bemused by certain passengers moving back and forth through the train to stand in the 'optimum position'! Many thanks are due to him for his excellent work, including his very competitively priced "meal deals"! Looking ahead we could see the road was set to return back via our outward route through Embankment Sidings, but our Driver quickly noticed this and got the route re-set to run via the rather inappropriately named Speedway Curve with its 10mph speed limit. This gave the opportunity to view the other side of the depot including HST Barrier Coaches, various grounded vehicles used for general storage and wagon 787133 used as an engine carrier.
Our next point of call, Plymouth, was reached only 3 minutes late where we proceeded to traverse both Park Sidings and, as an "on the day bonus" the East End Engineers Siding. Tour participants were also treated to the fine sight of 34067 and 45407 in the station, being the traction for the Railway Touring Company's re-dated "The Mayflower" excursion.
Totnes was to be our next point of call for some highly unusual moves, but we were delighted to take in Hemerdon Goods Loop on the way. On arrival at Totnes, after a brief pause, we completed the West End Siding in full before reversing and running to the buffers at the long East End Refuge, much to the merriment of well-wishers and enthusiasts enjoying Totnes Littlehempston station on the beautiful South Devon Railway, just as a steam train was departing down the branch. At this point, our driver (long-standing L&CI member, and Exeter HSS based Driver, Jon Morton, was noticed waving frantically to his fellow colleagues on the SDR platform, and probably wishing 150927 could emit thrash and clag like his Class 37 which is based on the line). It was a delight to see two ex-BR CCT Ferryvans fully restored (889009 and 889015), being the two "barrier" vehicles that accompanied 150263 / 89001 / 90008 / 91003 and two BREL International Coaches to Hamburg for an exhibition in 1988. Long standing Kitson built exhibit "Carnarvon" was also visible.
Knowing that flooding was now definitely going to restrict us at Heathfield, we made away 11 minutes down and, having collected the Network Rail Pilotman proceeded as expected to approximately 1m and 10 chains where we encountered a temporary stop board and detonators on the line. Good fortune however came our way when Network Rail and First Great Western arranged for us to reverse and run into the former Newton Abbot bay platform 9 now used for stabling the Colas locomotive off the Teingrace to Chirk timber trains, for a 30 minute leg-stretch and photo opportunity, being the former Motorail platform. For many this was the highlight of the day, not so much for the extremely rare track but for the opportunity to visit the rather appropriately named "The Railway" for some well-deserved refreshments! One participant had last departed from Newton Abbot Platform 9 on a passenger train to Moretonhampstead in 1958!
With our first set down at Exeter St David's calling, we set away just 8 minutes down and completed Tiverton Up Loop as expected before arriving at Taunton platform 3 via the crossover (neatly slotting in between two Down direction FGW services) at Taunton West. By default we used the crossover at Taunton East, and then completed Highbridge Up Goods Loop and Yatton Up Loop in accordance with the specification.
Of course, every good tour needs a finale, so we took the Up Relief at Parson Street from the first available crossover and stayed "relief" through to Bristol Temple Meads where we returned the honours from the start of the day and took the Up Through, before reversing at the East Gantry and terminating in bay platform 1 only nine minutes down. With 276 miles and 2 chains under our belts, we waived our good byes to the train crew, stewards and passengers – and promptly started counting the huge pile of booking forms we had collated during the day for the Chiltern Depot Tracker Railtour on Sunday 26th May!
To conclude, thanks must go out to everyone who made this very special charter happen – not least of all Stuart Smith, a Driver for First Great Western at Plymouth, General Secretary of The Locomotive & Carriage Institution and not least a prominent BLS member, who was the original "driver" behind this fixture, along with the input of his good friend Adam Daniels. The list of those to thank is almost endless……