The Branch Line Society


Animal Tracker
Saturday 7th October 2017

Report by Duncan Finch

At 9am on a cloudy and quite chilly morning 20 members met at the main entrance to the Zoological Society of London 600 acre Whipsnade Zoo, south of Dunstable (home to 2,500 animals), prior to public opening at 10.00. We were met by the Great Whipsnade Railway stationmaster (SM) who gave the mandatory Safety Briefing. This included the procedure in the event of an animal escape, which had never happened during his seven years at the zoo. Apparently, it is the proverbial 'million to one' chance scenario but, as our group was being escorted through the Zoo, just a few hundred yards from the entrance, amazingly word came through on the radio (and backed up by a passing park keeper in a Land Rover) that an animal had indeed escaped! (The other 2,499 had not.)


The Protocol therefore was invoked and we were escorted back to the gift shop/entrance that we had only just left! Gathering along with other staff and park keepers it gradually became clear this wasn't a clever ruse to get us to buy food/drinks/sundries from the shop, and nor indeed was there an actual rogue White Rhinoceros! It was a white lie; the giveaway was that the automatic sliding shop doors remained open throughout (completely against the stated procedure!). It was just a Safety Drill. The SM couldn't believe the co-incidence although if the BLS visits somewhere strange things do happen …

At Whipsnade Central station was an open wagon with Diesel No.9 'Hector' in charge. Unusually for us a full 'normal' 1½ mile public circuit was made (with overlap by initially setting back over the points) before doing the rare Station Loop on the return. (All public trains run clockwise and use the other outer, other platform). During this, diesels 'Victor' and 'Sgt Blast' had been commandeered to move rolling stock to enable traversal of all lines in the Yard/Shed area. This started by setting back into the Engineers Siding to the end of line; the location of the first passenger terminus in the early years of operations. Remnants of the platform were still visible after over 40 years. The outside shed roads both sides of the shed were also 'red penned' to the ends, plus the middle and left hand shed roads (on approach) and the long headshunt (to an immovable ex-steam loco boiler). Sgt Blast took over briefly keeping the haulage merchants happy! Our comprehensive railtour finished by setting back to the right hand shed road terminating at the end. There was a traditional BLS round of applause for the staff who had worked so hard! Our hosts then generously offered complimentary travel on the first public service at 12.00, steam hauled by No4 'Superior' (coaled and prepared in the yard as we had shunted around it). Plastic tokens were issued (collected in at the ticket gate) and most participants retired to the nearby zoo café for a warm and sustenance, while a few did the complimentary (rather slow) bus tour of the park. Returning to the station before the appointed time and joining a healthy crowd of 'normal' passengers, the steam trip on the 2'6" gauge line was enlivened by an entertaining commentary about animals that could be seen (or not, as the case may be!) from the train!

Finishing around 12.15, most headed for the second destination (of six) this weekend, trying to avoid Dunstable town centre which is notorious on a Saturday (market day) for traffic. (Thanks to Bill Davis for this gen!) Sadly your intrepid reporter and his trusty driver/chauffeur (That's you Keith!) failed to do this and were held up, but not for too long. Everyone made it to the Caldecote Miniature Railway, in suburban Milton Keynes. Our hosts, the Milton Keynes Model Engineering Society were on site and prepared. They provided blue liveried diesel 'Hagrid' as the main loco for their 5"/7¼" gauge ground level line. The tour started at the Station Siding end of the line (which should become a through loop next year but much shorter with far less deviation than the original proposal shown on Peter Scott's 22 Apr 2012 Kentrail Enthusiasts Group track plan). Two circuits were needed to traverse both station approach roads and a third to do the Turntable Road. After reversal it was then off to the shed line for a double shunt setting back on to the Steaming Bays and then forwards along the headshunt adjacent to the shed. Another double reversal and final circuit round back to the station completed all the track.

There is also a 3½"/5" elevated line, a simple oval inside the ground level line. Not used on public running days and previously out of use (on two previous visits) due to rotten wooden supports it had been repaired and was made available for us especially - the highlight for many. This was strictly 'one at a time' behind battery loco 'Union Pacific 519'. It took a while with around 20 participants, even more so when, not long in, the loco struggled in places. This was quickly sorted and the queue soon diminished. After thanks were duly extended to everyone, it was 'two down and one to go' as we moved on to the pretty Bedfordshire Village of Lavendon, not far from Olney, of Pancake Race Fame.

The extensive 7¼" complex Lavendon Narrow Gauge Railway (LNGR) is in the grounds of the owner's home and open to the public usually on one Sunday (variable - see website or tel. 01234 712653) per month May to Oct. Proceeds are donated to local charities. Your reporter's last visit here was in 2012 and an extension opened last year more than doubling the length. The first few members to arrive (not yours truly, sadly) had the first ride around said extension, behind 0-4-0ST Loco No2 'The Lady H'. This soon came to a grinding halt though, as the Lady's steam injectors decided they'd had enough already! The delay blocked the line, meaning later arrivals had to start with 'D5038' (in two tone green livery) and the original line, a double return loop with a small halt at Twin Oaks. Several return runs were made to traverse the 'rare' track, a connection which cuts across the top of the loop, the triangle and the station run-round loop (to the turntable). Then came the rain, the only precipitation of the entire weekend, forcing most inside the café to partake of complimentary hot drinks and a fantastic hot and cold buffet kindly laid on by our hosts. The errant steam loco was banished to the siding and the extension loop was back up and running with 'D002' in blue livery. So most re-trained and travelled at a sedate pace, allowing time to note, about a third of the way round, a partly laid/ballasted return loop (revisit required). With the riding virtually complete there was time for more drink and food ('a shame to waste it') and to view the extensive collection of railwayana around the station. Ton site there are also four ex-BR 4-Wheel 12 Ton Vans. An aviation theme is prevalent, with several classic fighter jet cockpits displayed in a separate shed. All that remained was to thank the LNGR team (rail and catering) for their hospitality and efforts. Some participants would also meet up next day …

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