Date: Wednesday 14th April 2021
After a busy day of exploring the rails of Yorkshire, including a journey on one of TransPennine Express’ (TPE) new loco-hauled trains (read about that here), I arrived back at York station about 20 minutes before my LNER service south. I had been slightly concerned about the risk of my last jaunt up to Yarm, however as my train back left Northallerton the LNER Azuma was still at Darlington, leaving me plenty of time to change.
York is one of my favourite stations on the British rail network and I tend to see it as the changeover point from being relatively close to home, to venturing into the less travelled north, especially given it is approximately halfway between London and Edinburgh. The present curved structure of York was constructed in 1877 and was at the time the largest in the world. In 1968 the station was awarded grade II* listed status, protecting the stunning canopy and frontage for generations to come.
York is also somewhat of a railway crossroads, with lines leading off in all directions. The East Coast Mainline (ECML) is the main north-south route, with lines to Leeds and Hull branching off a few miles south. Within the station limits a branch leads of to Scarborough (leading to the odd track and platform layout around the north end of platform 3), whilst a couple of miles north, the Harrogate line leads away to the west. As well as the expected local services and intercity services on the ECML, you can also get trains across to Manchester and Liverpool, as well as all the way to Penzance from York.
My LNER service home was being operated by 801224, one of LNER’s electric only Azuma trains, which had started its journey in Edinburgh two and a half hours earlier at 1700, around the time I had arrived into York from Hull. With the temporary withdrawal of LNER’s class 91s due to engineering works at King’s Cross, Hitachi’s class 80x trains (including the Azumas) operate the bulk of all long-distance services on the ECML. Editors Note: By the time this post will go live, the class 80x fleets will have been withdrawn and have re-entered service after an issue was found during inspection. GWR was mostly affected, but there was still a major impact on LNER & TPE.
My train arrived into York a couple of minutes early and so I had a couple of minutes to make my way down the platform to the quiet carriage and find my seat. As we prepared for departure, one of the few long-distance services not operated by a Hitachi product arrived into platform 10, with a CrossCountry High Speed Train (HST) operating a service from Plymouth to Edinburgh. With the impending retirement of HSTs from the Midland Mainline, the five sets operating for CrossCountry will soon be the final remaining full-length passenger HSTs in Britain.
Although the train was still fairly quiet, there was a notable increase in passenger numbers compared to the week before given the reduction in Covid restrictions in England. Everyone had a table or pair of seats to themselves, however the vast majority of these were taken with just the odd clusters of ‘airline style’ seats not taken. I’ve reviewed the Azuma plenty of times before, however not that often in standard class, and although the seat was comfortable, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do my marathon journey south from Inverness in one.
Whilst some operators haven’t yet reintroduced catering (TPE I’m looking at you), LNER has found an innovative new way of replacing the at seat trolley service in standard class. Whilst there is still the café bar on each train if you fancy stretching you legs, LNER has also introduced an online ordering service where you can look at what is available, make your order and pay, with a member of the onboard team bringing your refreshments to you.
Unfortunately, whilst I could get the Wi-Fi to work (unlike my journey to Leeds earlier in the day – read about that here), when I loaded the website, I was unable to select any service. Trying a couple of times on both my laptop and phone, I gave up with it being a lost cause on this occasion and ambled back to the café bar to grab a sandwich. I have used the ‘Lets Eat at Your Seat’ service before during my commute and do find it good when it works and is especially beneficial if you can’t or don’t want to leave your seat for any reason.
Although the onboard catering is reduced, there is still a reasonable choice and I headed back to my seat with a meal deal comprised of a Chicken Salad Sub, bottle of Coke and a Dairy Milk which cost £6. Although I had to pay for this meal, I found it a million times better than the chewy bacon roll I’d had for breakfast on the northbound service that morning. Also, in standard you have a choice of coffees with Lattes, Mochas and Cappuccinos available, whilst in first, at best, you’ll get a cup of filter coffee.
There were just two intermediate stops on my journey south, with the first being Doncaster where a Grand Central class 180 was waiting for its next duties in one of the bay platforms. I’d actually been chasing this unit south since Yarm, it having passed through about 15 minutes ahead of my TPE service and then having left York just before I arrived. Along with Hull Trains, Grand Central is an Open Access Operator, meaning it doesn’t run one of the franchises and received no support from the Government during Covid. Along with the increased passenger numbers, seeing Grand Central and Hull Trains back on the tracks is a positive sign that the rail industry is slowly making it out of the Covid pandemic.
After Doncaster the only remaining stop for me on the journey home was Newark North Gate, one of Newark’s two railway stations. The other, Newark Castle, is on the Nottingham to Lincoln line which crosses the ECML via a flat crossing just north of North Gate station. This is one of the fastest and busiest flat crossings in the world and is necessary as the river Trent and close proximity to the A46 prevent a grade separated crossing. There is also a curve of track that connects platform 3 at Newark North Gate with the Nottingham to Lincoln line, allowing services from the south to serve Lincoln.
As we approached Peterborough a few minutes early I was pleased with how stress free the journey was. As someone who has had to continue commuting throughout England’s lockdowns, travelling by train hasn’t fazed me, however the clear reassurance operators are providing is key to welcoming people back to the rails. This journey was busier than I have become used to, but due to the measures in place I felt just as safe as I have on every other rail journey I’ve made.
Overall Rating 14/25 (read about my rating system here!)