Operator: LNER Headcode: 1E13 Route: INV-KGX Class: First Seat: L57 Date: Monday 2nd November 2020
Less than 12 hours after arriving back from Aberdeen, I was back at Inverness station to begin my journey home. As I mentioned in my post about the sleeper (read that here) there are just two direct London to Inverness (and return) services each day, with the sleeper making up one of these. The other pair of services are LNER’s ‘Highland Chieftain’ which leave Inverness and King’s Cross at 0755 and 1200 respectively, arriving at their destinations just under 8 hours later.
There’s no general first-class lounge at Inverness (the Sleeper has its own across the road), and so after checking the board I headed straight down to the far end of platform 1 ready to get on board the Azuma that would be taking me south from the Highlands, through Perthshire, Lothian and the Borders and down into England. I had a short wait on the platform as seemingly the platform had been displayed before the crew had arrived, but with about 15 minutes to go before departure, I was onboard and settling into my seat for the next 8 or so hours.
The Highland Chieftain is already one of the UK’s most special services as it travels through ever changing stunning scenery, snaking its way through Scotland. This journey meant even more to me as whilst I was in Scotland, England’s second lockdown had been announced, and this was likely my last rail journey for leisure until at least the New Year.
We departed Inverness right on time and after passing the depot and sidings just outside the station, began to climb and turn away from the stunning Moray firth. Just to the east of Inverness is Culloden, site of The Battle of Culloden and the railway loops around the battlefield before beginning to head south towards the Cairngorms National Park.
Just over half an hour after leaving the capital of the Highlands we made the first of the thirteen scheduled stops for our journey, at the Highland town of Aviemore. Aviemore is one of the key gateways into the Cairngorms and is in close proximity to the lochs, forest, mountain trails and ski runs of the National Park. Aviemore station is also home to the Spathspey Steam Railway a ten mile stretch of preserved railway that is one of only a handful of preserved mainlines in Britain.
Just after Aviemore a member of the onboard crew came through first-class to take orders for breakfast and, as the only hot option available, I went for a Bacon Roll along with a coffee and some biscuits. This arrived about ten-minutes later and whilst not a great as a full LNER breakfast, it was certainly delicious.
Kingussie and Pitlochry were our next stations and between these points is Druimuachdar Pass, the highest point on the mainline British railway network (the Snowdon Mountain Railway is higher). Druimuachdar Pass sits at 1484 feet above sea level, almost 150 feet higher than Britain’s highest station at Corrour which I had visited just a few weeks earlier (read about that here).
After Druimuachdar Pass and Pitlochry, next up was the second of the four Scottish cities we would stop at on this journey. Perth, also known as ‘The Fair City’ after Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Fair Maid of Perth’ was previously also known as Saint Johnstoun by the locals in reference to the main church. Whilst this name has mostly disappeared, it is still held by the city’s football club St Johnstone who play in the Scottish Premiership. Randomly it is also the only senior men’s football club in the UK who’s name contains the letter J.
After Perth, we had a brief stop at Gleneagles, home of the famous hotel and golf resort, before continuing onto Stirling, the point where the overhead power lines begin. Prior to Azumas running on this route, the service was operated by High Speed Trains (HST) which ran the entire journey on diesel power, including the 429 miles stretch from Stirling to King’s Cross which has overhead power available.
The Azumas that now operate on the route are the class 800/1s which are bi-mode, allowing them to operate on more environmentally friendly electric power for most of the journey and switching to onboard diesel engines for the unelectrified sections. Thankfully the Scottish Government has revealed plans to electrify the Highland Mainline as well as most of the Scottish railway network by 2035 as part of their ‘Rail Services Decarbonisation Action Plan’ and with the ability to switch between diesel and electric power, when this happens, the Azumas will be able to run on electric for the entire 580 miles journey to London.
After Stirling the next stop was Falkirk Grahamston and, whilst not overly familiar, marked the start of railways I had previously travelled across. After Falkirk was Edinburgh’s Haymarket station at which we arrived 6 minutes early, showing how much buffer is built into this section of the timetable. After waiting at Haymarket for our departure time we passed through the tunnels either side of Princes Street Gardens and arrived into Edinburgh Waverley and onto the core section of LNER route.
There’s a 10 minute wait timetabled in both directions at Waverley, presumably to meet the relevant train paths on either side of the station but also to allow recovery time should the service be delayed on its journey to Edinburgh. After leaving the Scottish capital, the Highland Chieftain is one of LNER’s most ‘express’ services with only three stops between there and London.
Newcastle was the next stop and it felt slightly odd passing through the city that I had originally intended to visit over this weekend away. Unfortunately, Covid and the city falling into Tier 3 meant I had had to change my plans, but after such an enjoyable time in the Highlands, I’m not entirely disappointed. Newcastle is very much still on the ‘to visit’ list, and hopefully 2021 will bring more opportunities for travel and exploring.
Speeding through the stations at Chester-Le-Street (one of only two operated by an independent private company (not a Train Operator or Network Rail) between 1999 and 2018) and Durham, our next stop was the County Durham town of Darlington. Darlington is a fairly unique station design in that the fast lines of the East Coast Mainline (ECML) actually avoid the station all together, passing to the east of the platforms.
The final stop on our journey south was at the railway town of York. I’ve written a couple of times about the railway history in the town (here and here) as well as the National Railway Museum (here). York is the point where the northbound and southbound Highland Chieftain’s are timetabled to pass, and as we arrived, the northbound service was already sitting at its platform ready to continue its journey north.
As we started our 180-mile, 115-minute run south, we also passed along what was Britain’s first high-speed railway. No, not HS1, but the Selby diversion, the first section of railway in the UK designed with a provision to run above speeds of 250km/h. In reality trains are limited to 210km/h (125mph), however the ability is there to upgrade it in the future if desired. Rail engineer Gareth Dennis has done a couple of great ‘Railways Explained’ twitter threads on the Selby diversion, which you can read here and here.
Continuing south the railway and scenery becomes more and more familiar, first as we pass Marshgate Junction (where the Leeds branch converges) and Doncaster and then as we enter the Midlands and the stations at Retford, Newark Northgate and Grantham. I’ve travelled on the section of the ECML between Grantham and Peterborough numerous times, both as part of journey to the north and to visit family in the Midlands as this is the section that long-distance East Midlands Railway services between Liverpool and Norwich run.
Passing my home station of Peterborough at speed, we were on the home straight down to London and drawing to the end of my mammoth almost 8-hour 600-mile journey south. Given the length of journey and my reservations over the more streamlined seats and limited Covid catering, I arrived into King’s Cross still sitting comfortably and without any complaints over the amount of catering on board. All the staff on board were friendly and the service provided was great, except for the couple of DIY coffees. LNER are definitely one of my favourite operators and I don’t have any qualms using them on even their longest route again in the future.
Lounge 0* Seat/Facilities 4* Food 3* Service 5* Punctuality 5*
Overall Rating 17/25 (read about my rating system here!)