14 August 2020

Travelling Along The Bure Valley

It had been a scorcher. Almost a week of consecutive days when the temperature had easily exceeded 30C. Before this mid-August heatwave, I'd chosen to support a heritage railway and booked return tickets with the Bure Valley Railway, on their narrow gauge line from Wroxham to Aylsham. The company re-opened last month, having made their business 'Covid Secure' and offered a handy online booking system for travel, that was fully interactive.

The Yellow timetable was in force, that appeared to have been introduced specifically in these post-Covid times. It seemed to be inefficient in terms of number of trains required - three - when putting back some departures by a few minutes would require just two locomotives and rakes of coaches. But the trio of trains required was deliberate to utilise turnaround times, so that the guard and member of station staff at the route's termini could thoroughly clean the coaches before the next journey.

I selected the outward journey and was not forced to choose a return. I could, if I wished, decide this on the day, though availability couldn't be guaranteed. For those who wanted to commit to a return journey, this needed to be notified at the time of booking. I opted for this as my trip coincided with connections with Greater Anglia's Norwich - Sheringham service at the adjacent Hoveton & Wroxham main line station.

An adult return fare is £14.50 and a child return is £7.00. The adult return had increased by 50p since 2019, which is very restrained considering like so many others, the BVR's existence relies solely on seasonal and discretionary custom, and their business was forced to close for many months earlier in the year. And, as I was to discover, their trains cannot carry as many passengers has they ordinarily would in the height of the summer season, so total revenue would be down on previous years.

I first travelled on the BVR a few years after it opened. I don't recall the year, but the occasion formed part of a family holiday in Norfolk and my father assures me there is some camcorder footage that I'm now very keen to review! What I do recall from this visit some twenty-something years ago, is how pristine the railway way. I vividly recall being of the opinion that the line's reopening as a narrow gauge railway was without consideration of cost. This view was one of naivety, of course, since everything is undertaken with one eye on the bean counters, but the comprehensive feel the railway had and the fact it covered some considerable distance - nine miles - was very impressive.

The BVR also benefits from the trackbed not being built on. Although the line closed for traffic before the infamous 'Beeching Report', it remained open for freight, with BR closing the line in 1982. It therefore remained devoid of trains for just eight years, during which time volunteers with the assistance of Norfolk County Council, whom the BVR refer to as 'enlightened' effectively rebuilt the railway but in narrow gauge, and Aylsham was once again linked to Wroxham and the first passengers carried on 10 July 1990, thirty-eight years after the last passengers were carried.

In fact, and unbeknown to me at the time, 2020 marks the 30th Anniversary of the BVR. The line has been in operation as a miniature gauge railway for exactly as long as it was used exclusively for freight (1952-1982). Congratulations to the husband-and-wife team who now operate the railway on a not-for-profit basis and who have made significant steps to ensure their popular attraction (carrying 100,000 passengers a year) is able to operate in this so-called 'new normal'.

I brought my children along with me for my trip, and parked at Grantham station before boarding the 1011 EMR service direct to Norwich. It was formed of 158854 and we departed punctually and remained on time throughout. The section of route through Thetford Forest always puzzles me: the line twists and turns with automatic half-barrier crossings yet a line speed of 90mph is permitted. In contrast the slow lines on the ECML between Grantham and Peterborough permit a maximum line speed of 80mph.

Norwich station was fairly quiet. I've become accustomed to one-way systems in shops and the station's Co-op was no different, with yellow and black-striped safety tape-marked arrows on the floor showing the advisable route. Sadly, the layout of the shop ensured you had to double back, but thankfully no-one seemed to care.

The 1245 Greater Anglia service to Sheringham was showing on time but the inbound arrival at 1241 was late so I checked on realtimetrains.co.uk and saw the train wasn't due until 1247. There was a signalling problem, which I mused would almost certainly not have happened under the old system of mechanical semaphores and block posts! But hey, progress aside, I could now at least see its location using my track map of choice, Tracksy.

We didn't leave until 1254 which was now starting to concern me as I'd booked us on the 1315 BVR departure to Aylsham. We arrived at Hoveton & Wroxham, aboard 755328, at 1307 and made a purposeful dash across the adjacent footbridge. There a representative of BVR was stood in the booking office and after detailing my reference from the online booking system, was presented with two boarding passes, one for each direction. We had three minutes to walk behind the manual turntable and along the platform where our train was stood, ready to depart. We'd been allocated compartment A5. In this direction, coach A was the leading coach and compartment 5 was the rear-most within it.

All this dashing around meant I wasn't able to fully appreciate the Class 755 'Flirt' trains that GA introduced last year amidst a complete hailstorm of problems. My enjoyment of travelling aboard trains is quite simple. Does it have effective air-conditioning (needed more than ever on a day like today), can the guard's announcements be heard and how loud is the engine? Fortunately, this Stadler product fitted the bill in all areas. The air-conditioning was excellent, so too was the clarity of the guard's announcement. And unlike all new trains (other than the Mk 5 coaches?) the '755s' have power packs in between two centre coaches, which means the diesel generators are located in this one location and not under individual coaches, so there was almost no noticeable engine sound.

Yes, the seats are what a friend of mine would call 'arse breakers', but journeys aboard these trains are reasonably short. I certainly plan to return to travel more extensively on these new trains. 

Their planned introduction was not without controversy. There was no requirement in the franchise agreement for Greater Anglia to introduce Driver Only Operation (DOO) beyond what the operator had inherited to/from and around London, but the company intended on downgrading its guards to customer service assistants, whose mandatory presence and safety-critical training would not be required. This then heralded weeks of strike action by the RMT union and the company backed down, though subsequently negotiated with train driver union ASLEF a new method of working, which sees the driver take over full control of door release and closure. While the guard continues to be required for the train to operate, there now runs the risk of one being accidentally left on the platform. I understand guards continue to be trained in door operation, and can step in during times of degraded working.

Back to the BVR and our steam locomotive was No. 6 'Blickling Hall', a 2-6-2 ZB Class Tender Locomotive, painted in Great Eastern Railway Blue. It was built by Winson Engineering and delivered at Easter 1994. Blickling Hall is a Jacobean mansion, owned by the National Trust, just outside Aylsham.

The line is single-track with passing loops. Network Rail call these 'dynamic loops', which always raises a smile. The first passing loop is in fact Coltishall station, which has an island platform. We passed No. 1 'Wroxham Broad' hauling a Wroxham-bound train. 

After we'd all alighted at Aylsham - BVR headquarters - the train was shunted out and back into the opposing platform (one). No. 6 was detached and revered down the 'through road' to the rear of the train and into the depot yard where a manually-operated turntable is located. The loco was turned here and revered onto the rake of coaches. Platform 1 was used as it can be cordoned off, so intending passengers are kept at bay until the train has been adequately sanitised.

We returned on the same train at 1500. We were also assigned the same compartment. We were slightly delayed leaving as a family with one of their party in a wheelchair arrived late and were accommodated in the accessible coach. Each train is particularly lengthy, comprising eight coaches (A-H). The guard's compartment is in the centre (coach E). Being at the rear of the train for the return journey saw an increase in comfort, no doubt benefitting from us being some considerable distance from the locomotive. Our delay enabled No. 1 'Wroxham Broad' to enter the station with its Aylsham-bound service, rather than wait outside as it is probably booked to. We used the passing loop at Coltishall to pass No. 8 'John of Gaunt'.

I noticed that none of the intermediate stations at Brampton, Buxton and Coltishall are in use at the moment. This is probably due to guards having no role to play in ticket sales, which take place at the termini stations or online. And of course with social distancing in evidence, it could be there is insufficient capacity at times. It's a frustrating decision to take, though one that BVR has presumably calculated worthwhile as patronage at these stations is probably low.

Upon arrival at Wroxham, passengers are ushered off the platform and this is then cordoned off. A one-way system is in operation, keeping intending passengers for the next departure separate from those leaving. We stood and watched our loco being turned on the manual turntable at Wroxham before having a look around the bookshop located on the station. We then walked over to the main line Hoveton & Wroxham station and boarded the 1627 service to Norwich.

The information screens showed this as being on time, but realtimetrains.co.uk said otherwise - the train as four minutes late, which again rang alarm bells as we had just eleven minutes at Norwich before our Manchester Piccadilly train departed at 1656. And of course realtimetrains.co.uk was right and the information screen was wrong! At 1631 GA 755413 arrived and we were soon on our way, calling additionally at Salhouse on this journey. Whether we genuinely made up time or a large amount of slack is given, we arrived in Norwich two minutes early! Phew. We headed to Platform 2B and caught the EMR Class 158 (whose number I didn't take, but did notice one of the coaches had the windows open so steered clear of that one as it was a surefire way of knowing that the air-conditioning wasn't up to much).

A lightening strike at Three Horse Shoes to the east of Whittlsea saw us delayed by 9 minutes, and upon arrival in Grantham we were just 4 minutes late.

The day was thoroughly enjoyable. My only concern is the reliability of the Bittern Line service (Norwich - Sheringham). Two delayed journeys had the possibility of thoroughly messing up my best-laid plans. Fortunately they didn't so I'm not too concerned, but if I plan on recreating the day, I may amend my travel plans just in case!

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