Electrics, Diesels And Electro-Diesels
The Railway Magazine|August 2017

The June issue of Practice & Performance covered a journey in the cab of a Class 92 from Euston to Glasgow. Thanks to the good offices of Serco Caledonian Sleeper and GB Railfreight. John Heaton FCILT resumes the story with a Class 73 cab ride from Aberdeen to Edinburgh.

John Heaton FCILT

THE distinctive noise of an MTU engine ticking over at Aberdeen station in the semi-darkness of anearly April evening comes from Class 73 No. 73970 standing in the bay platform at the head of a five-coach sleeper portion – destination Edinburgh for combination with the Inverness parent train and Fort William through coaches. Booked arrival in London Euston is at 07.47 the following morning. The tare weight of the trailing load is well within the 1,600hp capability of the refurbished former Southern Region electrodes, but the coastal road to the Scottish capital is by no means an easy proposition.

Dale Williams introduces me to GBRf Craigentinny driver Paul Beasley as we watch the 21.31 ‘Voyager’ depart for maintenance at Paul’s home depot, having arrived here at 20.48 on the 09.25 from Plymouth.

The freight company’s portfolio of Scottish work justifies a separate depot in the Edinburgh area nowadays and there is some discussion of the special arrangements for the ‘Royal Scotsman’ prestige charter programme which is about to start. Dale is also on the lookout for suitable recessing locations for its future use.

The signal clears, the ‘right away’ sign illuminates and driver Beasley eases his train onto the main line. The first obstacle is the 1-in-118 climb up through Nigg Bay with speed eventually reaching 57mph on the 1-in-154 and then dropping to 55mph at Cove Bay on the 1-in-102. Paul says he does not rush this section as he is likely to be checked, somewhat incongruously, by the preceding ‘Voyager’. However’ the length of block sections means that, after touching 67mph at Portlethen, we find Newtonhill’s colour light distant ‘on’.

Speed has been reduced to 25mph when the semaphore home signal clears, but while we are still a few hundred yards away. I sense this is an awkward situation as a strict interpretation of the rules means that all other stop signals operated from this 'box will be ‘off ’. If we were being ‘dropped down’ to the section signal (‘starter’ in traditional parlance) at danger, we should have been closer to the signal and probably travelling more slowly before it was cleared, but signallers sometimes have a habit of pulling the appropriate lever when a berth track circuit becomes occupied if the progress of the train has slackened.

Paul plays safe and does not accelerate. Out of habit, I look to the signaller – in these circumstances an unauthorised hand signal is sometimes used to reassure the driver the section signal is off… but not this evening.

Paul is then able to see the signal is in fact clear and the Class 73 engine roars into life accelerating the train by 50mph until the 75mph permanent speed restriction (psr) intervenes. This was just one episode in a long journey, but one that demonstrated the way safety issues are routinely handled. It was also a perfect example of everyone doing their job properly.

The purple velvet that envelops Stonehaven Bay is dappled with light from houses where bedtime cocoa is no doubt being prepared. Our arrival is three minutes late and perhaps the lesson might be the scheduling of a later departure for the sleepers from Aberdeen, as the ‘Voyager’ had been on time. Since traffic is light, the 3min dwell time at most stations is more than ample and, as there is no advertised arrival time for these ‘pick-up-only’ stops, there is indeed no need to throw the sleeping cars round the considerable number of bends on the route to Edinburgh.

Starting out of Stonehaven there is a sharp four-mile climb, some of it as steep as 1-in-85, finishing with a mile at 1-in-102 to Carmont. No. 73970 reaches 50mph in 2.4 miles followed by a stirring 66mph past the ’box. There is a 65mph temporary speed restriction (tsr) in force on the descent from Drumlithie to Fordoun, but the Class 73 touches 80mph each side of the slowing and has to brake for the 75mph psr before Craigo.

Montrose’s Up distant signal is ‘on’ as the 14.00 King’s Cross-Aberdeen HST clears the single line from Usan so we are still 1½min late. The coastal stretch to Arbroath brings a maximum speed of 78mph before the straight, level section that features a Carnoustie stop, no doubt well-used when golf tournaments are taking place.

Broughty Ferry is passed at the full speed of 80mph before a cautious entry to Dundee and a 1min late departure. It is the first time I have crossed the Tay Bridge in the cab during darkness and one cannot help thinking of the poor signalman in 1879 venturing out in the gale on all fours onto the old bridge to discover the High Girder section destroyed, and the train he had signalled across it, lost to the turbulent river below.

That was a long time ago and what matters now is that we are on time all the way to Thornton South Jct despite a 50mph tsr before Cupar. Leuchars has proved to have been the busiest intermediate station so far, fed from St Andrew’s of course. Table 1 shows the log of the journey.

From the Inverkeithing stop there is a stiff two-mile climb to the Forth Bridge at North Queensferry, all but a few yards at 1-in 70. No. 73970 appears to balance at 40mph which Michael Rowe of the Railway Perfomance Society (RPS) calculates as an equivalent draw bar horsepower of 1,100. I was not prepared for the dazzling light show that is presented to drivers as they cross the bridge under the floodlights that are now used but their impression was memorable.

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