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Theo Steel, National Rail Heritage Judge, commentary on rail trips June 2021

Stirling station roof. Theo Steel

Our trip was based around seeing the family in Knaresborough and unveiling National Rail Heritage Award plaques in Aberdeen, Ballater, Montrose and Stirling. We stayed in Aberdeen and at the Station hotel in Perth, said to be the process of changing into a Radisson. We had planned to travel back on Avanti but there were no direct reservations available south from Glasgow on 30 June so it was LNER both ways.

I checked the Airport departure schedules for day of writing 5/7 at Edinburgh Airport and Newcastle. Edinburgh showed from 0600 to 1830 16 flights to London Airports – 7 Easyjet split 3 to G,2 to S and 2 to Luton; 9 BA 6 to Heathrow and 3 to London City. Newcastle was only showing 2 to Heathrow. There were 25 planes seen on the ground at Edinburgh(12 on terminal stands) as we passed on 28 June. There is another flight to Luton at2115 I see.

Rail of course is now half hourly from Edinburgh from 0600 to 1800 with 2 more departures outside that timespan – despite Hitachiitis. Quite a transformation in the relative offer! The LNER timetable is pretty complete other than about 8 Leeds trains in each direction missing. Incidentally the schedule tightened Leeds trains are running to time.

The timekeeping details are extended using Real Time Trains.

Comments on the individual journeys.

1301 ex Thorpe Bay 25 June

Usual progressive aggregation up to 250 passengers into Barking where we changed onto District/H and C to Kings Cross. Plenty of intermediate traffic. Underground was OK loadwise c2c on time (2E into F St). Off peak mainline frequency still 8 car trains every 30 mins except on Sats. when it is quarter hourly.

1500 ex KX 25 June

Along with most of the Friday afternoon Anglo Scottish services this was sold out given the social distancing limitations. This is somewhere around 300 now that the reservation systemallows bubbles to sit together. Concourse at KX busy, market on the forecourt half open as were most of the shops. About 300 on from KX and over 200 when it departed York. 57 in first but LNER do have a £25 upgrade on. My son though is back to travelling to London most weeks for business from Knaresborough and there were other “suits” on this train. It was 3E at Colton and on time into York. It was slightly late around Morpeth(not unusual as there is work going on on the embankment there) but on time at Edinburgh and into Stirling 2E.

It rode well as did all those travelled on and the contact minimised service efficient and friendly, nice to have ground coffee. My glass was offered broken but sorted out.

Out of plat 4 at KX and passed Potters Bar in around 10 mins. Track still to lay at Werrington, Posts but no wires S of Colton to Church Fenton(that is planned for the autumn I believe).

2 Intermodal trains at Peterborough and 1 at Doncaster all ready to go -on a Friday evening too!

Lots of Class 91 locos parked in various stages of distress at Doncaster.

1711 ex York to Knaresborough 25 June

3 car class 170 as it was the last time we travelled the route in Dec 2019. About 90 on, not many off at Poppleton. Crossed the 5 min late running 1635 ex Leeds, another 3 car 170 at Cattall – that was running 5 late. I believe the signalling has been improved, albeit most is semaphore. Still 2 single line sections.

The first bonus of the day was to come into the at last repainted Knaresborough; not only that but lovely flower displays and 2 new shops and a pub fill the long vacant accommodation. Usage up from 349k p.a, in 2015/6 to 439k in 2019/20 – one of our better used unstaffed stns. Hopefully the reorganisation will balance out some of the station staffing inconsistencies. Streets around jammed with cars and the mooted park and ride station looks to be needed. 30 off and 35 on.

The route East of Knaresborough is scheduled to go to half hourly next year from hourly currently which looks right, a lot of new housing nearby from our trip out on Sun.

All was on time and 170 when we had lunch within sight of the viaduct on Sat 26 June. Incidentally after an effective clearance 3 years ago the bushes are back on the viaduct!!

1015 Knaresborough to York 28 June

About 20 on and off; 2 x 158. On time at both points despite a 2 min wait at Skelton Jcn. 85 off at York. We saw the next train in at 1143 and that had 95 off. Quite normal loads.

An hour at York where the Travel Centre has been revamped; most cafes and shops open too. Felt quite busy.

All N trains seen were spotless inside and out.

A pretty positive interlude!

1152 York to Aberdeen 25 June

Arrived 3E as it did at Ed, on time into Aberdeen.

No overtime at intermediate stations N of Edinburgh as often used to be the case – automatic doors must be helping at these often minimally staffed stations but we need some more heavily loaded trains to make a judgement.

About 120 off at York, same on.

52 in First ex York and 56 ex Edinburgh. Monday is the busiest day nationally in the DfT weekly stats.

No foreign tourists or large groups on what is the 1000 from KX.

At Edinburgh we were on Plats9/10 outside the main area – not optimal.

The firsts were off at Leuchars (12) and Dundee as well as 20 at Aberdeen. Total off at Aberdeen about 180.

The 2hr 30and a bit Edinburgh to Aberdeen IET timings are slower than 170’s/mini HST’s. Its 130 miles, albeit with 20 on the Tay Bridge. LNER tends to stops more though.

Dunbar Edinburgh bound platform built and the footings are in at Reston 2 of the First open access Edinburgh IET’s seen out on test, lots of TPE kit at Heaton as well as one Pacer.


Aberdeen is of course in serious decline post oil/gas retrenchment – the rail usage was 3.5m in 2015/6 and was 2.5m in2019/20– south of Arbroath though it was growth pre pandemic. Union St is a pale shadow of its former self with 50% shops closed/vacant.

The big overall roof has been refurbished and a lot of glass has been put into the platform canopies on platform 7 where they had been stripped back to frames since the 1970’s. The Travel Centre is being redone in a £20m scheme which also brings plats 7 and 8/9 into potential use – the immediate track N of the stn is still single line.

It threatens to be as much of a transformation as Queen St .albeit £20m (rather than £120m at Q St) is being spent.

The access is rather restricted from Union Square.

Ferryhill and Ballater 29 June

We went to present an NRHA plaque for the restoration of the turntable at Ferryhill. It is at the end of an operational passing loop spur, all flat bottomed track. It was retained to reverse HST power cars as necessary I recall. The Museum Trust there also have some significant coach bodies and the old engine shed is their workshop.

Then down to Ballater by road to present the plaque for the restoration of the station – a £4.2m scheme by the LA with Princes Trust and Lottery contributions. Very well done. The Provost and Councillors out in force with officers, a fun ceremony for everyone albeit refreshment free. Ballater quite busy with tourism.

The cafe in the station not yet open.

Incidentally Greg Beecrott had driven up in 3hrs from Wemyss Bay in 3 hrs reminding us how good most of the roads are in Scotland.

Montrose and the viaduct

Over the top in beautiful sunshine to Montrose where we presented a plaque for the restoration of the originally iron viaduct which has been restored by NR and Taziker – who also did the Tay Bridge.

1532 IET Montrose to Dundee

Montrose stn was staffed until 1800 or so – usage was 389k in 2019/20.

For reference usage in 2019/20 at stns between Arbroath and Porthleven was

Arbroath 383k

Laurencekirk 88k

Stonehaven 452k

Porhtleven 106k

Montrose is a 1980’s functional building. The friendly booking clerk helpfully reserved us some seats on the LNER train. There were about 130 on and we would have been accommodated without reservations we were told by the on train staff. We saw one of the currently roughly hourly Aberdeen Crossrail trains depart(a 158) with about 10 people on.

The local stations between Arbroath and Dundee now have an approximately hourly service too, extensions of Edinburgh/Glasgow -Dundee trains(170’s)

At M and Arbroath seemingly derelict goods yards with flat bottomed track visible through the vegetation. Not much bullhead around except on the passing lines at Dundee station.

IET was on time and despite being 6 late off Edinburgh was 3 E into Peterborough and on time at Kings Cross. Schedule was 34 mins for Montrose to Dundee with a stop at Arbroath – 31 miles.

The timetable for journeys N of Stirling was recognisably similar to that in 2009.


N of Cupar/Dunblane to Aberdeen signalling is semaphore except around Perth, Dundee, Montrose and Aberdeen.

1645HST Dundee to Perth

This was notable as an Aberdeen to Glasgow HST Express but with a rare stop at Invergowrie (usage 4k a year pre pandemic but with newish platforms). Anyway it left 2 late and proceeded quickly enough to be in Perth 1E in 23 mins for 21 miles with one stop and the very slow approach to Perth. There were 5 on and 5 off and about 60 on the train where the first class coach was staff only. The standard coaches are ex GW high capacity currently which I don’t find particularly comfortable to sit in or indeed easy to see out of.

The new station entrance at Dundee is impressive and adjacent to the Discovery and the V and A outpost, Usage is around 2.0m. The old part of the stn has been nicely restored.


This station must be the ultimate conundrum!(and money sink)

I quite like the 1960’s booking hall entrance but I am probably a minority of one. The recent lifts and footbridge at the southend of the complex don’t really relate.

Andy Savage took me round the Caledonian sleeper training centre in the N part of the Tite buildings which is most impressive with attached lounge and does get more of the accommodation used. One person booked from there on the sleeper but it was busy from further N.

The Transport Scotland rep at Stirling told me that masterplanning has begun. How nice it would be to replicate the buzz in the Going South picture in the NRM. Meantime usage was around 1.06m in 2019/20.

While at Perth the Inverness to Mossend Tesco freight passed through—nice to see a train the same length as the Highland side platforms(20 coaches). The Aberdeen – Grangemouth container train was through 4 mins later.

0843 170 Perth – Stirling 30 June

This had about 60 on – with 20 on/off at Perth and did the 33miles with 3 stops in 34mins. Impressive! By Stirling up to over 100. On time.

Stirling station

We were there to celebrate the excellent work to adapt this Grade A listed building by James Miller to the 21st century. Lifts have been incorporated and electrification clearances achieved very elegantly. A text book example – as indeed is Gleneagles a few stops up. Usage was 2.4m. A well won plaque!!

The entrance roof is being replaced – a £4m scheme.

1135 385 Stirling -Edinburgh

I have been in one before but this was impressive – 36 miles to Waverley with 4 stops and the slow final mile in 44mins. It rode well throughout and at 100mph E of Polmont.

Some levelling up for c2c in terms of maximum speeds!

It rode superbly and the acceleration was good.

Better still there were 60 on at Stirling and Larbert and over 200 off at Edinburgh which was overall looking busy to the point where we sought the lounge out while we waited for the 1330. This was a good example of leisure coming back faster than commuting but the Scottish seem to be on school holidays and out.

The lounge entrance has a superb 1900’s mosaic which was discovered and restored and a fine staircase to the seats. No food but very quiet and a chance to relax in nice surroundings.

1330 Edinburgh – Kings Cross

We managed to reserve one of the rare first class f and b pairs on the E side of the train and were in for a great view of the coast etc. Let’s hope the new build has the 4 seat tabled bays on the E side. At the risk of promoting apoplexy there were over 300 cars counted at various points in the dunes between Berwick and Chathill and Belford/Beal do look to have a summer market!!

Anyway 30 plus firsts on and a total load of 250 S of Newcastle where 120 plus joined. First class service within current constraints immaculate. The crew had an out and home trip from Kings Cross in less than 10hrs.

We left Edinburgh 1Late and were 4 late off Newcastle but made it up to leave York on time and arrive at KX 2E after passing a 700 at speed at Knebworth.

Back home

Kings Cross was quite busy and on the tube social distancing was not really on, although as everywhere most were wearing masks. We arrived at Barking in time to get the 1831 which must have had about 400 on on arrival and is marked up on the helpful c2c load website as limited seating.

In on time and over the footbridge and home.

Theo Steel

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