29th May 1999
First North Western ~ Diesel Gala (?)

As any followers of today's UK railway scene will doubtless know, the use of diesel locomotives on regular passenger services is now somewhat limited. One stronghold for "hellfire traction" however are some the First North Western trains along the North Wales Coast and to Birmingham. At this time, many of these services were in the hands of EWS Class 37/4's. With the introduction of the summer timetable from 30th May there was to be a reduction in the number of locomotive hauled trains, however a larger problem confronted FNW towards the end of the month when one of the tractors they had hired in from EWS lost a large chunk of metal from the bogie frame whilst working a train. This incident prompted the immediate withdrawal of the dedicated fleet of 37/4's used on the FNW services for examination. To cover the diagrams required EWS to provide other non-passenger 37's. I was unable to take any holiday from work during the last week of May to take advantage of this but decided to spend this particular Saturday chasing whatever locomotives were out....

Yawn.... Yet another early start saw me at Birmingham New Street in time to catch the 08.10 FNW service. The early start was rewarded as in rolled 37413 "The Scottish Railway Preservation Society" which I required for haulage. The run as far as Stafford was quite entertaining (as almost always with a tractor at the head of the train!). I baled here for a short wait for a southbound service which turned up with 37429 "Eisteddfod Genedlaethol" in charge (not a required haulage). The route of the services to Birmingham is usually via Bescot one way and back direct so about 90 minutes can be spent on board before arriving back at Stafford. At Bescot quite a line up of other 37's were noted (including 37174, 404 and 406). The new order was also present in the shape of "shed" 66099 (a required sight).

The grapevine had already done its bit and most of us knew the next Birmingham bound FNW working had 37058 "up front" (required haulage for me). As expected the leading coach of this train was well filled with tractor bashers. The round trip via Birmingham soon went by and, for the third time, I found myself back at Stafford for a brief pause before heading south again (with 37413 back in charge of us). On this occasion I stayed on round the Birmingham circuit to Stafford, but instead of getting off this time I stayed on to Chester - about another hour on the way towards Holyhead. My reason? Well, the gen was that 37298 (required haulage) was working on the diagram that stays on the North Wales Coast and doesn't go south of Crewe at any time.

Sure enough, about bang on time at 16.31 and 37298 rolled into Chester station. I climbed on board for my third required tractor haulage of the day. We shot off from the station in typical "tractor style" - that is, very loudly. Acceleration was swift but within a mile we began to slow and I soon realised that 298 had gone very quiet.... Sure enough, we soon braked to a halt and silence descended. After a few seconds and 298's engine was re-started and revved hard a couple of times. We set off again and everyone settled down (some were hoping that 37377, the spare engine at Chester, would be needed. It wasn't). At Crewe, this service terminates and is turned round for a run to Bangor. 37298 powered off the train and round the corner.....but didn't return. The rumour mill soon wound into life and it was revealed that 298 had been "failed", so a replacement loco was required.

Enter 37250, which soon appeared off Crewe diesel depot. As another required haulage I was soon back on board and back on my way to Chester again! A short wait here would drop me back onto 37058 on a Birmingham bound service. Word soon went round the assembled enthusiasts that the train was extremely well filled (and reported standing room only!). It rolled into Chester station with heads out of virtually every window. On boarding it was soon obvious that the train was indeed very well packed - totally wedged probably being a more appropriate phrase! At Crewe we lost quite a few of the bashers and yet more abandoned the train at Stafford. From there to Birmingham the front coach (incidentally the only mark 1 BSK left in service) was not over-filled. The departures from Crewe and Stafford were very impressive.

I abandoned the train at New Street where it terminated, forming the 20.12 to Chester. Many of the bashers stayed on for some (or all) of this run. As myself and a colleague checked the departure screen for a train back to Coventry to collect our cars we discovered all was not well south of the Midlands. It seems that violent thunderstorms in the London area and South Coast had caused a number of operational problems. Many trains were running over an hour late as a result...and some were even cancelled. A short wait for a Silverlink 321 unit soon however had us on our way home. At Coventry we saw 86260 arrive with the 19.24 departure - but it was just after 9pm!

Verdict : A brilliant day out! This late in the career of Class 37's I didn't really expect to be able to "claim" four required examples for haulage in one day, especially all on scheduled service trains!

Gary Thornton.

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