Dan and I have recently returned from a trip to the UK. It was my first trip there in almost five years and it was Dan’s first trip there ever. It was a fabulous adventure, spanning much of central England and even stepping into Wales. The reason for the trip? Rapido has started work on its first British model train project, and this was a way to get to know some serious British modellers and introduce our products and philosophy.
Yes, I would much rather be on Amtrak.
I absolutely hate flying. I do it out of necessity, but the idea of being couped up in a small tube with bad air, low pressure, a lot of noise, and a lot of unhappy people has, for some reason, never appealed to me. That’s why I don’t like taking the tube or the subway either. Too plane-like. The unbridled mass of humanity started congregating before security. I threaded my way through a 45-minute-long line just to have the honour of removing most of my clothes and having my belongings strewn about on a conveyor in public. When I travel by train I am left with some dignity. Not so when I travel by plane.
The only saving grace was that this was the Air Canada day flight to the UK, which meant that I could move about the plane without stumbling in the pitch dark (I hate when they turn the lights off) and I had about 12 seats to myself. I couldn’t help but snicker at the people who paid extra for business class, which appeared to be sold out.
Early morning coffee at King’s Cross
My first journey by land did not bode well. My cab driver at Heathrow was a surly git from Surrey who picked me up and then complained for the entire 10-minute drive that I was a local fare. He was big and scary looking so I gave him a tip in an attempt to make him feel guilty for being such an awful driver. Right – like that worked. Evidently I was already suffering from jet lag or simple stupidity. Thankfully all of the other cab drivers – in Crewe, York and Brum – were all very friendly and chatty.
I spent the night in Hounslow (note to self – NEVER. DO THAT. AGAIN.) and met Dan at the airport the next morning. The poor sod took a BA night flight. His boss is such a schmuck. We headed into London and the next two hours was our entire time in the capital – the time it took to take a taxi to King’s Cross and wait for our HST to the North. I hadn’t visited King’s Cross since the rebuilding, and all I can say is wow – what a fabulous concourse! This is only one of London’s many termini and it puts anything we have in Canada to shame.
Our HST prepares to depart for The North.
The HST – High Speed Train – or InterCity 125 is the British success to the Canadian LRC’s failure. Designed at the same time with many of the same aims and stylistic qualities, the HST has been one of British railway engineering’s great success stories of the modern age. The fact that these beautiful trains are still screaming their way up, down and across the UK almost 40 years after their introduction is quite something. We rode three on our trip and we wish we could have ridden more.
East Coast Class 91 (IC225) and 43 (HST) at King’s Cross
For those of you travelling to the UK on a non-UK passport, you should get a BritRail pass. We each paid less than £300 for an eight-day, first class pass. What a difference travelling first class makes when riding on Britain’s crowded railways. It was also a lot cheaper than buying all of the standard class tickets separately, even with the advance-purchase discounts.
Dan gets cozy in first class.
Attacking a Jacket Potato on East Coast
We travelled in first class on Heathrow Express, East Coast, Virgin, CrossCountry, First Great Western, London Midland, and First TransPennine Express. Without a doubt, East Coast was the best service and the best food and drink. The tea was simply delicious (unlike the muck served by First Great Western) and Dan very much enjoyed his hot meal served on a real plate! East Coast is the only British intercity railway currently operated by the British government, and it is without a doubt the most successful long-haul franchise. It paid back over £200 million in premiums to the treasury last year.
But the idea of a successful train-operating company being owned by the British government is so anathema in British political culture that the Department for Transport is going to let out this franchise, in which case it will probably be partly owned by the German government or the French government.
I was amazed that the largest operator of British freight trains is partly owned by the German government (DB Schenker). If it isn’t OK for the British government to run Britain’s railways, why is it OK for the German or French governments (through DB and SNCF respectively) to run Britain’s railways?
These are just the observations of an ignorant colonial outsider. I am sure there is some very good reason for this absurdity. But I can’t see it.
Dan does his best “Nodding Donkey” impression.
The train in the background is often referred to as a Nodding Donkey. We saw a lot of these while in the UK, and they are a model we’re familiar with because our buddies Arran and Charlie at REALTRACK Models have recently released them in OO. Dan liked them so much that he felt the need to imitate them at every opportunity. If your browser isn’t letting you see Dan’s Nodding Donkey impression above, boy are you missing out.
Arriva Trains Wales 175105 in Manchester Picadilly
Boy is that ugly. I’d even take a GMD-1 over that.
Heading to Crewe we rode an unremarkable Arriva Trains Wales Class 175. I was lucky enough to miss the 175s when I lived in the UK, but no such luck this trip. Here our 175105 is about to leave Manchester Piccadilly. I’m sure it has its fans, but that 175 nose is pretty awful.
At Crewe we had the chance to operate the fantastic Calder Northern layout in the Crewe North Junction Signal Box at the Crewe Heritage Centre. This was built by the Calder Northern division of the British NMRA. Have a look at a few photos below. Some really nice modelling here!
Bulldozing the concrete at Consolidated on the Calder Northern
The Canadian races an evening storm on the Calder Northern.
Here’s the other end of that train.
Gotta love the mix of stainless steel and blue and yellow!
The signal box where the layout is located is buried in the ground between two diverging mainlines. This makes for an impressive view of oncoming trains, especially when they appear to be heading right for you.
Thankfully this isn’t CN.
Dan and I theorized that if these tracks were owned by CN, we’d be violating the “hundred foot” rule: never get within 100 feet of a CN mainline for risk of being caught up in today’s derailment. It shows confidence in British railway engineering that this layout was built in a space so close to the tracks, and the fact that it is not yet a pile of twisted metal suggests a) the confidence was not misplaced, and b) Britain survived the brief period when its largest freight operator was owned by CN. Phew!
Dan takes the controls of the APT-P.
Really. They went into his suitcase after we took this photo.
The main reason for our trip was the presentation at Crewe. The presentation went very well, and it was a delight to meet so many British modellers face to face. People came from as far away as Peterborough and Folkestone to meet Dan and me, and we were honoured by the effort, especially as they don’t have BritRail passes.
Showing off Rapido’s wares in Crewe
Photo courtesy Keith Webb.
The next day we took the day off to head to Cardiff, the capital of Wales. And pulling into Crewe was another Arriva Trains Wales Class 175. The following conversation ensued:
“Dan, I think we’re on the same train as yesterday.”
“I know – it’s another Class 175.”
“No. I think we’re on the same train as yesterday, unless all Class 175s have the same scratch on the flush button in the bathroom.”
Arriva Trains Wales 175105… Again.
Sure enough, we were once again on 175105.
I have always loved Shropshire and Wales. Apart from being a huge Ellis Peters fan (I’ve read all of the Cadfaels – twice – and Sir Derek Jacobi may be awesome but he looks nothing like the wiry monk), I love the history and the scenery. I wish that Dan and I had more time so I could take him book shopping in Ludlow and Hay-on-Wye, or on a steam-hauled Christmas train ride in Llangollen or up the A5 to the Ogwen Valley near Conwy.
This is simply the most beautiful region of the UK, and places like the Ogwen Valley haven’t changed much since Cadfael’s time. When I lived in the UK, few of my friends had ever explored Shropshire, Herefordshire and Wales – or any other part of the UK outside of London, for that matter. They’d been all over Europe and all over North America, but had never explored the stunning countryside and culture on their doorstep.
Before long, we pulled into Cardiff and boarded a Nodding Donkey for Queen Street but were disappointed to discover the slam-door to the Bay had been replaced with a 153. Wow. It just occurred to me that most North American readers have absolutely no clue what on earth I am talking about.
The Nodding Donkey is a Class 142, 143 or 144 two-car British DMU (diesel multiple unit) that has only two axles per car and nods up and down as it goes over imperfections in the track. A Class 153 is a modern-ish British DMU, and the “slam-door” train was the 1960-built Class 121 DMU that used to shuttle passengers between Cardiff Queen Street station and Cardiff Bay.
Nodding Donkey to Queen Street
It was amazing how many people piled out of this Class 143 when it pulled into Cardiff Central. Seriously – I think it was bigger on the inside. Speaking of which…
A police box that was bigger on the inside…
We took the train to Cardiff Bay station, and just down the street from the station Dan and I noticed a 1950s British police call box on the corner that seemed to have been abandoned. I pushed the door open and the inside was absolutely massive. It was obviously done with mirrors.
Dan explores the police box.
Dan started wandering around inside the thing while I started walking around the outside, which was still just a small blue box. I got back to the doors and saw a big green dude lumbering up to me. I snapped a photo and ran.
Big green dude in Cardiff
Dan managed to catch my expression as I ran for my life back into the police box, slamming the door shut behind me.
Running from the Big Green Dude
Dan started fiddling with the controls on the console in the middle of the police box. Various lights flashed on it and the round things on the ceiling started to rotate. I tried to grab a photo of it, but I couldn’t quite capture the rotating in a still photograph. The place was shaking a bit at the time and Dan had just fallen down, out of shot. I wish I had got a photo of that.
The circle-y things on top started rotating.
And this is where it got weird. When the things stopped rotating and everything seemed to calm down, Dan opened the door and we were back at Cardiff Central station… at night. We had entered the box five minutes earlier, at noon.
Cardiff Central Station at night, we think
We walked outside to ask someone what the heck was going on, and while Dan was stuttering to a rather attractive young woman wearing a white lab coat and a really long scarf, I looked back at the police box – or, rather, where the police box was. It was gone. I’m not sure what gas is being pumped into the air in Cardiff, but there are some serious hallucinogens floating around. We got on the train back to Crewe and had a lot to drink.
The busy platform at Birmingham New Street station
For the last part of the trip, Birmingham was our base of operations. I love Birmingham. I used to live there, and being a proud adopted Brummy I have issues about all things London. That’s why, as I mentioned earlier, Dan and I spent a total of about two hours in London over the course of the entire trip. We stayed at the lovely Westbourne Lodge off the Hagley Road in Edgbaston, Birmingham. I recommend this as a home base to anyone visiting central England. The service was absolutely stellar, the rooms were beautifully appointed and breakfast was fabulous. The bathroom even had a bidet. I’ve never used one as they look too scary. When I look at a bidet I can’t shake the image of Sylvester being thrown in the air by Old Faithful in that Looney Tunes cartoon.
We headed to the NCE for the Warley show. The Warley show is basically a train show on steroids. The only thing that comes close in North America is the Springfield show. (Dan, Mike and Bill will be at Springfield next January, by the way.) There were several trillion layouts and vendors, and we finally got to hang out with our good buddies Arran and Charlie from REALTRACK Models. We’ve known Arran and Charlie for years but only over email and the phone. We were introduced to them by mutual friends in China. Usually Arran and I just talk about Star Trek. But this was a chance to talk trains.
Big, Medium and Wee.
Arran Aird and Charlie Petty of REALTRACK Models pose with Mr. Dan.
The REALTRACK model of the Nodding Donkey Class 144 DMU sets a new bar for detail level on British models. They have full underbody and interior details, they run beautifully, and the single axle trucks wiggle around just like the real thing.
RealTrack Class 144 at the Warley Show
Everyone has to go out and buy five of these sets immediately. That’s not optional – you need to buy them. Click here to order. Alright Arran, I’ve flogged your model. Now where’s that bottle of Glen Kinchie you owe me?
On our last day in the UK, we headed to York on a CrossCountry Voyager. Staying in Birmingham, one does find oneself on a lot of CrossCountry Voyagers. Upon arrival at York Station and seeing its 11 platforms and gorgeous Victorian canopy and station building, Dan uttered the immortal words: “Why do all Canadian stations suck?”
When you wander around York you realize how new North American buildings are…
The ruins of the Abbey of Saint Mary, York
You just don’t get stuff in North America like the ruins of a 13th-century Benedictine abbey. We have some piles of dirt that vikings used to live in! Do they count?
Dominion of Canada resplendent at the NRM in York
2013 marks 75 years since A4 Pacific Mallard achieved the world steam record of 125.88 mph on the East Coast Main Line in July 1938. To celebrate, the six surviving A4 Pacifics were brought to the National Railway Museum in York, where three can still be seen for a few weeks longer. Dominion of Canada was brought to the UK from Canada’s Exporail museum and lovingly restored.
As a Canadian, I find it astonishing how railway history (and history in general) is so respected in the United Kingdom. In Canada, anything old is thrown out. Only a handful of Canadian steam locomotives still exist and there are whole classes of steam and diesel locomotives that have been wiped from memory. Can you imagine any museum in Canada having the resources to repatriate and restore all of the remaining FPA-4 locomotives? Or can you imagine any museum in Canada having the resources to restore more than one steam locomotive at all?
Imagine uniting all of the world’s TurboTrains to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its achieving the North American speed record in December 1967. But no… even if we magically had the funds, all of the Turbos were scrapped.
The National Railway Museum – along with the dozens of railway museums and heritage railways throughout Britain – are a testament to the perseverance of railfans and historians over the last 60-odd years to ensure that British railway heritage is preserved and celebrated. This is a country that recognizes that in order to see where we are going we need to see and understand where we have been. In this aspect, Canada has a LOT to learn.
Seriously? I’d rather be on Amtrak?
Photo courtesy Thomas Blampied.
The collection at York is extraordinary. And the amazing thing is that this isn’t the only location – I’m told that the NRM has another museum near Darlington that is larger than Exporail’s Angus Pavilion. And then there’s Didcot, and Bo’ness, and Tyseley, the Severn Valley, Bluebell, Peak Rail, and the list goes on… This country is railway history heaven. Let’s put it this way: there are more preserved trains within a 100-mile radius of York than there are in all of Canada. Probably by a factor of three. And so many of the preserved trains in the UK actually WORK!
York Minster at sunset. Wow.
It was hard to leave York, but our last day in the UK was rapidly coming to an end. We did manage to get to Monk Bar Model Shop, a tiny place filled to the rafters with models that has been serving York’s hobbyists since 1963. I felt like I was walking straight into that Two Ronnies sketch. I wanted to buy some coaches for Boaz. One fellow stood at the counter calling out catalogue numbers, and another fellow went to check the boxes they had in stock. I couldn’t just browse. I was tempted to ask for four candles just to see what would happen. (If you’ve never seen the Two Ronnies sketch, click here. You won’t regret it.)
Monk Bar’s locomotive selection is excellent, but if you want coaches they only had a handful of oddballs in each scheme unless you are looking for something from the 1950s or earlier, in which case they had plenty. Sounds familiar…
On another CrossCountry Voyager…
Dan and I headed back towards London, but this time we were smart and avoided having to cross it by taxi, tube or bus. We took CrossCountry to Reading and an HST to Paddington, where we could catch the Heathrow Express. I have to say, CrossCountry service was very good throughout, and we took a LOT of CrossCountry Voyagers. Maybe it was just our luck, but on our two times on First Great Western HSTs, the service was terrible. We got the “you don’t look like you belong in first class” sneer from the attendant, and the brown liquid they served on FGW was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. It was tepid and undrinkable.
First Great Western HST at new-and-improved Reading station
Good train; crappy service.
One thing we noticed travelling through the UK is that PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) seems to be the hot fashion trend. Sure, we expected railway workers to be wearing PPE while trackside, but guys surveying Paddington Station platforms were also wearing full PPE and hard hats, and even the guy collection garbage in a park was wearing full PPE and a hard hat. Was he afraid of acorns falling on his head? If you are afraid for everyone’s Health and Safety, don’t watch our latest YouTube video (below) or it will give you a heart attack.
So I think our first trip to the UK was a success. We’ve now started work on our first UK model and we’ll be announcing it some time next year. Sign up for our free newsletter to ensure you don’t miss the announcement.
Rapido’s first UK model?
We do have some bona fides. 50% of Rapido’s four main employees have lived in the UK and are fans of British trains. Bill and I have been keeping tabs on the British market ever since we lived there, and Bill has a gorgeous OO Great Western layout in his spare room!
Teesbury: Rapido Bill Schneider’s GWR layout
Methinks these cars will not be switched by a pair of F3s.
Bill is happy to exhibit Teesbury in the UK for free… but his boss says you have to pay his airfare to get there!
For those of you not familiar with Rapido’s products, we are one of the few North American manufacturers entirely run by train-mad crazy people. Bill’s modelling has been featured in books and magazines; I built a full-size coach in my basement (the YouTube video is below); Dan can disassemble a real subway car in his sleep (he really has disassembled real subway cars); and Mike’s N scale modelling is literally known worldwide. We are obsessed with detail, and our North American passenger cars are, without exaggeration, the most detailed mass-produced model trains on the planet.
We look forward to meeting many more of our fellow UK modellers in the coming years, and to giving the UK model railway industry a little shake.