Golden Arrow Locomotive Journey

My Journey on the Kent Coast Express

By Sarah Griggs

27th January 2007, 9 years ago today!

It started at Victoria Station on a bright, if somewhat chilly morning and I, along with other eager passengers, were waiting for the arrival of the Kent Coast Express. At this point, I should make it clear that, from time to time, my “inner anorak” may make an appearance. For this, I make no apologies; it’s all part and parcel of being a steam enthusiast!

Our train, described as the Kent Coast Express, was being pulled by Battle of Britain Class locomotive 34067 Tangmere. This locomotive, a “light” Pacific was designed by O.V.S Bulleid for use on the Southern Railway.

These, the similar West Country class and the earlier Merchant Navy class locomotives must have looked ahead of their time when they were introduced in the 1940’s but now, at least to me, they seem to be very much of their time.

Many of these were later rebuilt into more conventional locomotives, but there are still a few running in their original “unrebuilt” state. Others that I’m aware of include; 34105 Swanage, which I saw on the Mid-Hants Railway about 12 years ago, and a Battle of Britain class at Swanage, the same year (I think it was 257 Squadron. I’d be interested to know of any others and where they’re running). Nevertheless, I much prefer the “unrebuilt” locos simply because they look so different.

We left Victoria only a few minutes late but we had barely got settled when the stewards came around with the complimentary champagne (I was in the dining class. I’d never travelled like this before and it did take a little getting used to, at first). However, it was in these first few minutes that I got my first whiff of a smell that has always reminded me of childhood holidays – the smell of a steam locomotive, a combination of coal, oil, steam and smoke.

For the first hour or so, we seemed to be making good time but there were scheduled stops along the way – at Whitstable for taking on water, Ashford International to pick up the diesel engine (more of that later) and Newington for what are known as “passing stops”. This is when we have to move off the main line to allow scheduled services past.

As a chartered service, we had to make way for the regular services, which naturally had priority. The Newington stop was longer than expected, and we ended up being 10 minutes behind, but as breakfast was being served at this time, it meant that we could eat in a stationary train – better for the digestion!

At Whitstable, when the locomotive was taking on water, we had a few minutes to take some photos. Arrow

Unfortunately, the platform at Whitstable is not very long, so many of us had a long walk down the train before we could even get on to the platform.

By the time we had all got back on board, we were a few more minutes behind and almost 30 minutes behind by the time we reached Ashford International station. It was here we had to wait for the diesel engine to be coupled up.

For those who are wondering why we would need to be diesel assisted, the reason is simple. The approach down to Folkestone Harbour station is a 1 in 30 gradient, one the steepest (if not the steepest) in the country. Therefore, all steam locomotives have needed assistance in the past – not with going down to the station, but to get back up on to the mainline. In our case, we were steam hauled into Folkestone Harbour and diesel hauled back to the mainline but in the past, it wasn’t uncommon for the train to be pulled by two smaller tank engines at the front of the train (known as a “double header”).

I know that most of you will already be familiar with this term but I thought that I’d throw in this little bit of information for the uninitiated among us. In the illustration on the cover, you will see that there is smaller engine at the rear of the train and another in the distance, at the front.

As we were running late upon entering Folkestone Harbour station, I was concerned that we wouldn’t have much time to stop and get out. I’d already called Brian (Office Manager) so that I could hand over the box of covers and so was scanning the crowds (and there were hundreds of people at the station!) looking out for him.

I’d just heard the signal for everyone to get back on board and I still had the box of covers, which was beginning to worry me. Although the thought of the covers carried on the entire journey may have sounded appealing, I was more concerned at the thought of having to cross London with them once again, and bring them all the way back home with me.

However, with just a few minutes to spare, Brian came into view (having been held up in traffic) so I was able to hand him the covers. When the train started up again, I felt now that I could officially relax and enjoy the rest of the journey.

We’d already been served a light lunch before arriving at Folkestone, and so, now in a position to stop worrying and enjoy the ride, I noticed that the weather had changed.

When we left London, and for most of the journey through Kent, we were lucky enough to have clear blue skies, but by the time we reached Folkestone, it had become overcast. And this, after I had proudly informed my travelling companions that “the sun always shines on Folkestone”!

I noticed that the passengers were predominantly male, but among the dining car passengers were quite a few couples. The cynic in me was perhaps wondering if this was the husbands’ buying their wives permission to have a day on a steam train! Not that I’m pre-judging steam enthusiasts and implying that they are all male, far from it – I’m one myself or I would never have volunteered to carry the covers.

After the stop at Folkestone, we headed back to Ashford, where we changed lines for the Marshlink route across the Romney Marsh to Rye and then on to Eastbourne. We had another passing stop at Rye but at Eastbourne we had a longer scheduled stop, where we hoped to have made up some time.

The idea was to uncouple the locomotive and service car so that they could “service” it over at the sidings at Eastbourne station. This was estimated to take 45 minutes, but we were given an hour to kill in Eastbourne. I just had a wander around the station to stretch my legs, and then wandered back to the train to distribute the leaflets that I’d been given for the cover. I’d just reached the end of the last of the passenger coaches when I heard a whistle blow.

As I thought that we would soon be under way, I made my way back to my seat. I knew that dinner was imminent – firstly, my starter was waiting for me and secondly, there were some appetising smells coming from the kitchen car. However, it was another half hour before we finally got going.

In order to leave the sidings, the Tangmere had to cross the mainline tracks to rejoin the rest of the train. However, with the regular mainline services entering and leaving the station, it took longer than expected to get a slot. By the time we finally left Eastbourne, we were an hour and 12 minutes behind schedule. When we reached Gatwick station, we had made up 10 minutes but in order to make up more time, the decision was taken to return by a slightly different route. As it was dark and the train was moving very fast by this time, I couldn’t make out the places that we whizzed through.

We finally arrived back at Victoria at 20.37, only 27 minutes behind the scheduled arrival time, so the driver and the rest of the team certainly made up much of the lost time.


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