Operator: LNER Headcode: 1S10 Route: PBO-EDB Class: First Seat: K04 Date: Monday 28th September 2020
My Monday morning started earlier than planned as my excitement building caused me to wake up six hours before our train and the not so pleasant hour of half four. Ahead of us lay a week on the rails as we explore some of Scotland up and along the stunning West Highland line. But first, the longest single train journey I had ever made, just short of four hours onboard one of LNER’s Azumas.
Having caught a lift to the station with a friend, we had about half an hour until our train and so I headed to one of the recently reopened coffee outlets to grab some much-needed caffeine. Seemingly this was the worst possible time to do this as just as I ordered, the stunning ‘Royal Scot’ pulled into the opposite platform on a southbound charter train. Thankfully, due it running a few minutes early, it stood in the platform for a few minutes allowing me to get both my caffeine fix and a photo.
Shortly after the Royal Scot’s departure south, we saw our train round the bend south of the station and were soon able to settle down into our seats for the next four hours. Whilst our tickets were advanced fares which come with a seat reservation, LNER are currently requiring all ticket holders to have a reservation for any particular service as part of their social distancing plan.
Although in principle this is great, in practice it seems to be flawed as the algorithm used to allocate seats separates bubbles whilst also only maintaining the minimum distancing (rather than putting individuals as far away from each other as possible). For example, on our journey, the half carriage of first class in coach K was fairly full whilst the adjacent coach L only had 5 people spaced out.
Right, sorry, rant over… We departed Peterborough on time and had an uneventful run north to our first stop at Newark Northgate 25 minutes later. The first stages of this journey are fairly familiar to me as I’ve travelled over these stretches of the East Coast Mainline (ECML) to Hull, Leeds and York a few times. With the Covid-19 measures in place, LNER has a very limited offering in first class, with just hot drinks, biscuits and crisps available from the kitchen at the back of the train.
As we approached Doncaster, the railway hub of South Yorkshire, we passed the railway yards that surround the ECML south of the station. At the back of one of these yards was a number of former LNER class 91 locomotives that until last month had operated services across the ECML including to Scotland. With the majority of the class 91 fleet now retired, the furthest north these locomotives now go is either Leeds or York.
Our next stop meant the end of common ground for me, with York being (almost) the furthest north I’ve travelled by train. The actual furthest point is the next station up the line, Thirsk, which we didn’t stop at on this journey, but we used last year when we had our unexpected overnight stay in Yorkshire (read about that journey home here).
Just south of York, it was clear summer was leaving us as parked in a siding was a Rail Head Treatment Train top and tailed by a pair of class 37s awaiting the next run. These trains essentially spray a high-powered jet of water at leaf mulch on the rails to clear them and then lay a sticky solution to help wheels grip to the rails. If you’re interested in reading a bit more about these trains and how Network Rail (NR) keeps the lines clear during autumn, they have an excellent piece on their website here.
The next stop on our journey north was Darlington, one of the birthplaces of the modern railway. From here, along the branches to Stockton and Shildon, the Stockton & Darlington railway was the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives. Opened in 1825, sections of the railway route around here are now 195 years old and most of the original route is still served by Northern on the Tees Valley Line.
Durham was next up on the journey, with its famous Castle and Cathedral which we were able to get a stunning view of as we entered the city. Having been founded over the final resting place of St. Cuthbert, the cathedral has been a centre of pilgrimage since medieval times and in 1986 it, and the adjacent castle, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to the World Heritage Site, the whole of the city centre is a conservation zone with a total of 630 listed buildings throughout the city. If you want to see some history, Durham is definitely a place to go!
Having passed the Angel of the North (although I missed it as I wasn’t paying attention), the next stop was the city that I always think of when I think about the North-East. Newcastle. On the north bank of the Tyne, Newcastle is a destination on my UK bucket list (you can read my top five here), and as we crossed the river, we got a great view of all the bridge connecting the city with Gateshead to the south of the Tyne. We didn’t get to see much of the city itself from the train as we were on the wrong side, but I’ve got to say that the station itself is rather spectacular.
The final two stops for our service before Edinburgh were the Northumberland town of Morpeth and village of Alnmouth. Morpeth has only just had a £2.4 million refurbishment completed with the exterior restored to the original design as a joint project between the Greater Morpeth Development Trust, Northumberland County Council, Northern, NR, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Railway Heritage Trust and shows just how much can be achieved when different organisations work together.
Alnmouth is a bit of a railway oddity in that although it is a small ‘local’ station, managed by the local operator, Northern, most of the trains that call there are intercity trains operated by LNER or CrossCountry. With roughly an hourly service, the users of Alnmouth can get direct trains to Edinburgh, Glasgow & Aberdeen to the north and London, Bristol & Penzance to the south. Alnmouth is also the nearest station to the stunning Alnwick Castle, famous in its own right but also for its role as part of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.
As we hugged the Northumberland coast, we were on the wrong side of the train for the best views but were still fortunate to see some stunning scenery. The Holy Isle of Lindisfarne was visible of the coast and by the looks of the sea, was cut off with its causeway underwater as we passed. The border town of Berwick was up next, although we weren’t stopping, with its famous Royal Border Bridge that carries the railway over the River Tweed and Tweed valley.
We toasted Tunnock’s Tea Cakes as we crossed the border into Scotland (I’m not one for stereotypes, but it seemed appropriate) and we were soon speeding through the city suburbs on approach to the end of the first leg of our journey north. Edinburgh is a city I have visited a few times (and written about here) and so the scenery started to become familiar as we approached Waverley station from the east.
Arriving into Waverley’s platform 6, I had thoroughly enjoyed my longest rail journey to date and, although very different than usual due to Covid, LNER had certainly lived up to expectations once again. As I was writing this in the middle of Rannoch Moor, I saw that LNER have expanded their catering offering again and so I’m looking forward to seeing how our journey south will compare.
Lounge 0* Seat/Facilities 4* Food 2* Service 5* Punctuality 5* Overall Rating 16/25 (read about my rating system here!)