Tuesday, 30 April 2019

West Midlands Meetup: a write-up

On Easter weekend I went to the UK once again, this time for a meetup with 3 friends I met in a UK railway focused Discord server. This post will detail my journey there and what happened at the meetup itself.

Going to the UK

Going to the meetup at all was an idea that popped up a mere 2 weeks before the meetup itself. I started by looking for cheap flights from my closest airports to the UK, and found a Ryanair flight from Riga to London Stansted, leaving at 11:15 on Friday (April 19) and a return at 06:20 on Sunday (April 21). The meetup itself took place on Saturday.

I had never flown out of Riga before, nor had I flown on Ryanair since late 2016, so flying to the UK now was a new experience in and of itself. I got to Riga by a Lux Express coach, leaving Tartu at 03:45 on Friday morning and arriving at the airport at 08:00 - 3 hours before my flight. The coach was very comfortable, I was able to get plenty of sleep on my way to Riga. I will make a more detailed post on Lux Express in the near future as well, where I'll also compare this ride to the many times I've taken Lux Express inside Estonia - there are quite a few differences.
The coach - an Irizar i6 - at the airport

The coach got to the airport roughly 20 minutes ahead of schedule, with me being the only passenger - others got off at the Riga bus station in the city centre. The airport was devoid of passengers - I'm quite sure I saw more staff than passengers until about 10. There are 3 'piers' of departure gates: A, B and C, and mine departed from the C pier: the only pier which can handle flights outside of the Schengen area. I took a seat near gate C12, where my flight was initially scheduled to depart, and waited there until about 10:15.

I then decided to get up and stretch my legs for a bit, and noticed on the departure screen that the gate had changed to C20 - that explains why I saw no passengers. They were all queuing in front of the boarding gate, passengers with priority in one queue and no priority in the other. I joined the priority queue, as I had purchased a 2nd cabin bag, and about 20 minutes later I was on board flight FR2643, operated by a Boeing 737-800 EI-DHD.
Boarding at Riga
The flight went smoothly and we arrived 20 minutes early in Stansted. I then had to wait about 30 minutes at border control to get to a manned booth where my ID-card could be checked by a border officer. I recommend EU citizens to travel to the UK with their passports, as they can use the automated e-passport gates and save time. The officer seemed suspicious as to why I flew from Riga, Latvia when my ID-card was Estonian, but she seemed to be reassured when I told her it was just cheaper.  Once I was through, I headed for the Stansted Airport railway station, but not before printing out my tickets to Birmingham for tomorrow from a ticket machine.

One day in London

Having missed a train to London by 2 minutes, I got on the next one instead, leaving in 13 minutes. This was the 12:45 Stansted Express service to London Liverpool Street, which I would take to Tottenham Hale - a station in northeast London served by both mainline and underground trains. My train was quite crowded, as it was only 4 coaches instead of the planned 8. At Tottenham Hale I met Andrew, who allowed me to stay at his place for the meetup. Getting to his house was the next item on the agenda.
A Clas 707 at Vauxhall
We took the Victoria line to Vauxhall, where we changed to a South Western Railway service to Whitton, operated by a Class 707 electric multiple unit, similar to trains running on Thameslink. I unpacked some of my things, and we headed back to Central London at 15:50. Only plan I had in mind was climbing the 320-step staircase at Hampstead station, equivalent to 15 stories, others we mostly made up on the spot.

A sign for the staircase at Hampstead
Having reached Hampstead we grabbed some snacks and walked to West Hampstead Thameslink station, hoping to catch one to London Bridge to see the rebuilt station. Unfortunately there were some closures on the Thameslink line, so all trains terminated at St Pancras International instead. However, this was an opportunity to take some unique photos, as Thameslink trains rarely run to the high-level area of St Pancras. We also took some photos of Eurostar trains, and then Andrew left to go home while I took a Northern line train to London Bridge.




A Class 700 and Class 222 at St Pancras High Level. Photo by Andrew.

London Bridge station was recently rebuilt to a new layout. Many areas of the station are walled off for ticket holders only, similar to the airside area of an airport. The station is served by mainline Southeastern services towards towns in Kent, Thameslink services to Brighton, Bedford, Peterborough and Gatwick and Luton airports, and suburban Southern services. I took some photos of Southeastern trains, and then got on one myself to Waterloo East, where I took a train and a bus back to Andrew's house, grabbing some snacks for tomorrow from a Waitrose near Twickenham station.
A Southeastern Class 375
The departure boards at London Bridge 

The Meetup

On Saturday morning we left at dawn towards Marylebone station in London to catch the 07:06 Chiltern Railways service to Birmingham Moor Street. Rather than go all the way up to Birmingham on it, we got off at Banbury to take some photos of passing trains. We then took a CrossCountry Class 220 Voyager train to Birmingham New Street, where Jack, Tom and "Shadow" joined us. Andrew bought himself and me tickets for the day: West Midlands Day Rangers, a multi-use ticket valid for one day in the West Midlands region.

A Class 68 at Banbury. All photos in this section are by Andrew
We all then got on a CrossCountry Class 170 "Turbostar" to Nuneaton, hoping to see a Class 319 being pulled by a locomotive past the station. "Shadow" stayed on the train past Nuneaton, presumably decided to head home instead. Unfortunately, it didn't run, so we just took some photos of passing and stopping passenger trains and went back to Birmingham New Street on an earlier train than planned, another CrossCountry "Turbostar". 
A Turbostar at Birmingham
Rugeley Trent Valley was our next destination, which we would reach by a Class 170 "Turbostar" operated by West Midlands Railway. On the way there we played a game of cards, which Tom won. At Rugeley we were expecting a freight train to pass, which it did. We then headed to Lichfield Trent Valley on a Class 350 train, hoping to see another such train dragged by a Class 37 locomotive, which unfortunately didn't run. Upon arrival at Lichfield, we noticed a train had been cancelled on the same line which we were due to take next. As our train seemed unaffected at the time, we weren't too concerned.
Class 66-hauled freight train passing Rugeley
Unfortunately, the 13:50 service to Longbridge which we were due to take next, got delayed due to a signalling fault and was eventually cancelled. The next train was from Lichfield City at 14:16, but we would miss a Class 156 at Longbridge that we wanted to see. So we took a cab (paid by West Midlands Railway) to Lichfield City station to catch the Class 323 train to Bromsgrove. The 156 move we were hoping to see at Longbridge got cancelled as well, so we didn't actually miss anything. However, since we had missed an earlier train, we had to wait 50 minutes at Bromsgrove to catch our next train to Droitwich Spa.
Our Class 323 approaching Lichfield City

A commemorative plaque at Bromsgrove
Tom left to head home at Birmingham New Street, leaving only 3 of us. I got about 20 minutes of sleep on the way to Bromsgrove - quite needed after waking up at 04:45. At Bromsgrove we walked to a KFC to grab some lunch, but had to take it with us back to the station, as our next train, a was due in 14 minutes. At this point we had a 2 minute connection at Droitwich Spa, assuming our train ran as timetabled. Our next train was to Stourbridge Junction, leaving on the opposite platform from Droitwich Spa. Unfortunately our train, a Class 170 "Turbostar", was delayed due to trespassers on the railway, and we saw the connecting train, a Class 172 "Turbostar" leave from the station as ours pulled in.
Bromsgrove station
By now it was 16:24, and although we had caught up to our plan since we didn't go to Longbridge as planned, missing this train ended up completely cancelling all upcoming plans, as the service was very infrequent. We were planning to go from Stourbridge Junction to Stourbridge Town on a Class 139 "Parry People Mover (PPM)" and then go near the Welsh border at Telford. As we were waiting at Droitwich Spa and Andrew was drafting up new plans, we noticed a train heading towards Stourbridge Junction due at 16:56 - this train would be our last chance to take the PPM, and we would make it back to Birmingham in time to head back to London if we skipped Telford.
A passing Turbostar at Droitwich Spa
Speakers at the station announced delays of this train due to trespassers from earlier, and the delays were well over 30 minutes. Eventually our fate was sealed and the train was cancelled. Andrew once again made a new plan, and we decided to go south to Worcester instead, by taking a Class 172 "Turbostar" to Worcester Shrub Hill. As Jack hadn't bought any food from KFC earlier, he was pleased that we would be leaving the station and going for a walk in the city, so he could grab some water. We got to Worcester Foregate Street station at around 17:30, where Andrew was hoping to go up to Stourbridge Junction still and catch the PPM. However, the next train wasn't until 17:48, and it was delayed as well due to earlier trespassers. Our train to London left Birmingham Moor Street at 19:15, and the same train Andrew was planning to take would get us there by 19:02 - there was nothing else to do at this point than head home on a Class 172 "Turbostar" - the 6th one today.
Class 165 at Shrub Hill
The train home: A Class 168

Going home

Even though our train was delayed, we had plenty of time at Moor Street to wave goodbye to Jack and take some photos of our Class 168 to London Marylebone leaving at sunset. We finally got peace as we sat down on our Chiltern Railways train - after all the cancellations, delays and fast connections, it was finally over. This was most definitely interesting for me - I had never been on a Turbostar before, and I had never taken Chiltern Railways. Marylebone was also a new station, and all the disruptions and other mishaps we experienced just added more excitement and uniqueness to the day. Andrew has thought of going to Cheshire at some point and doing something similar - I wholeheartedly support the idea. Additionally, West Midlands Railway have approved my claim for delay repay compensation because of the cancelled trains - they will be paying back the entire cost of the West Midlands Day Ranger.

We got to Marylebone a little past 9 and took a Bakerloo line train to Waterloo. We had the unique opportunity to take a train from platform 20 at Waterloo - an area formerly belonging to Eurostar. All other 4 platforms of that section were empty, and before our train arrived at the platform it was very eerie - a mainline terminus in busy London on a Saturday evening devoid of any passengers.
Empty platforms at Waterloo

At roughly 10 Andrew & I made it home, and it was time for me to pack my stuff and head to Heathrow Airport - more on that in just a moment. At 30 minutes to midnight I left the house to walk to the bus stop, and Andrew followed me there as he was walking his dog. I took Bus 490 and 285 to Heathrow Central bus station - not to catch a plane, but a coach instead. I had booked the 00:55 National Express coach from Heathrow to Stansted Airport, arriving at 2 am, nearly 4 hours before my flight. The coach was quite comfortable, there were few passengers and I arrived on time.

Stansted Airport had a large section of it sealed off for the night for security reasons, and passengers were held near the arrivals area - many were sleeping on the floor with their luggage. At about 2:30 the area was opened up, and the horde of passengers headed for their check-in desks and security. I thought of waiting it out at first, but then noticed that the queue at security isn't getting any shorter and joined in instead. At about 3:10 I got past security and went to the departure lounge, hoping to find a place to sleep - my gate wouldn't be shown until 05:40. At first I stayed on one of the large wooden bench-looking things in the main lounge, but later found a much more comfortable place in a hidden lounge on a floor below, just before the passages to the gates.

The hidden lounge in Stansted
Later I headed to my gate, got on the Ryanair plane EI-DCG and fell asleep before we even left the gate - reserving a window seat turned out to be a good idea, as noone would bother me when trying to get in or out. I woke up a few times for a few seconds during the flight, but stayed asleep until landing in Riga. I arrived early again, by about 30 minutes, and after clearing passport control at Riga I decided to go to the city centre for about 7 hours while waiting for my coach to Tartu. I walked around the railway station area, had lunch, rode trams and buses and took some photos of old Soviet trains in the train station. At 18:45 I headed for Tartu on a Lux Express coach and made it home at about 23:10.

A DR1A train in Riga

The future

I can say with utmost certainty that in my 9 years of UK rail travel, this was the most fun I've ever had. I already mentioned that Andrew is thinking of having a meetup in Cheshire, and I hope that it'll be in a time when I can join in on that. As I'll likely be in London again in October on a class trip, a half-length meetup of sorts could be held there as well. As I'm also thinking of moving to the UK in 5 years, this meetup gave me some invaluable knowledge that can only be obtained from locals, such as "Tesco is usually the cheapest store" and "Chocolate Oranges are good". I look forward to more meetups in the future and more exciting train journeys.

More photos from the meetup and other British trains can be found on the BRDiscord Gallery.









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