The Branch Line Society


The Breckland Freighter
Saturday 14th September 2019

Report by Stuart Smith (additional material Paul Stewart)

So, after several months of not participating in a BLS fixture, I booked for two: The Bow Bells [later on The Breckland Freighter] and the Cardiff Pacer Farewell. As the tour date of the former approached, news came in of significant changes due to issues with infrastructure condition (following inspections) and pathing constraints. The alternative did at least allow for many of the 'highlights' to still be achieved.


Fast forward another week and it was time to head to Nottingham. I opted to travel from Plymouth early on the Friday morning, on 'The Armada' departing 05.53, enjoying the journey as a passenger, rather than driver and reaching Paddington 09.00. Oh, and as a side point, I find the seats on the IETs reasonably comfortable, as long as one sits correctly, rather than slump or slouch! [The best seat on the train is the driver's seat, apparently they cost tens of thousands of pounds each - PAS.]

Into London on time (yes, it does happen occasionally) and a quick transfer over to St Pancras International followed. If I'd had my passport, I could have gone via Paris, as a quick look upstairs revealed Eurostar spare power car (373999) was waiting its next duty through the Channel Tunnel. Plymouth via Paris Nord to reach Nottingham.... now that surely would have been one of the most bizarre routes to reach a railtour by? I could divulge all my moves for the rest of the day, but for more experienced/ dedicated/desperate (delete as appropriate) 'Quailers', many of my moves were merely 'catch-up'. In short, Bestwood Park Loop, Radford Jn facing X/O and Mansfield Woodhouse P3 were some successfully ticked off. Plus all four NET extremities, including seven of the eight terminal platforms!

So, to the tour itself. An early 06.25 start saw many usual faces gathering on Nottingham P7 to witness the arrival of DB Cargo's 66041 & 66088, very sought after locos for many. An on time departure saw us weave across the entire track formation and straight back again to cover many crossovers. Several pick ups quickly followed, taking us via East Midlands Parkway and Sileby (another winning crossover). By now it was noted from the timings that we had plenty of recovery time in hand throughout the day!

Route Description

Little did we know exactly how much, but more of that later. Melton Mowbray loop and the lengthy Up Goods Line before Oakham were covered, and at New England North we cut right across the East Coast Main Line to Peterborough Yard Up North Arrival Road. This was the first change from the initial itinerary, as the rarer Construction Line was originally advertised. Oh well, some you win, some you lose (but another winning line in the evening). Eastfield box (a good quiz question - it's not at the other Eastfield) was right. It is an 1893 built, later extended, 65-lever manual frame, controlling points without facing point locks - did the points move for you? - using bell codes to Peterborough Panel!

A quick pick up at Peterborough followed, before heading for the goods loop at March. The former Joint Line and King's Lynn via Wisbech (East) platforms still exist here, and discussion around our table turned to railtours of yesteryear that went to Wisbech. My only visit to that branch was with the original Hertfordshire Railtours in Jan 1995 with 37376 & 47820, although one of our group, showing his age, could recall many exotic trips to long since abandoned places in the region behind Class 40s...

Coffee and cakes seemed appropriate, and with only the odd pile of ballast to artificially heighten the fen landscape out of the window, the conversation turned to matters abroad, including forthcoming trips involving Ludmillas and Swiss Krokodils. There was even a debate on Portuguese Custard Tarts!!

With Ely Cathedral appearing on the skyline, we swung right over the facing crossover and onto Ely West Curve, before passing several rakes of stored HST stock, including 43002, still in British Rail Blue and Grey Livery. On a personal note this is a sad sight, as several colleagues that I know at Laira Depot spent many hours applying a new 'retro' livery to this power car originally destined for the National Railway Museum. Unfortunately it now finds itself languishing, exposed to the elements, rather than taking its place around the turntable at York! Of course, it really should, and indeed still could, be earning its keep on trains for GWR... but that's a whole different debate.

Before long we arrived into Brandon and entered the Goods Loop. Here we reversed to become the first ever passenger carrying train to enter the recently expanded DBC aggregate terminal behind the station. It was more significant than many had expected and we traversed the left hand track in its entirety (TRACKmaps only shows one of the two dead end lines, the right one is a bit shorter).

We left Brandon goods loop before stopping quite abruptly around half a mile east. It was soon announced that 66088 had developed a fault and we would need to head back into the freight facility, becoming the second ever passenger train to use it, for the driver to assess the situation. (Onboard staff advised that the loco had started the day from Toton Yard with a traction motor isolated, not an uncommon practice, but had now developed a fault with a second one so the loco had to come off.)

Needless to say, all the conversations and resulting shunts that followed delayed us, so much so that we finally departed (minus one loco) around 120 minutes late. Assurances were made that the itinerary would be adhered to as much as possible, although the advertised break at Norwich would have to be dropped. This was due to timing constraints and the impossibility of running round in the station with the passenger train frequency. With many participants previously choosing to use this time for either leg stretching, the acquisition of hot food, leaping to Brundall with 37424, or generally just being able to leave the train, I don't believe this decision was that well received by some. However, it was appreciated that many unusual factors were at play here and participants understood.

Window Decal by Amy Nash

Anyhow, by now we had arrived at Eccles Road and reversed to enter the Exchange Sidings. After reversing again, the branch to Richard Johnston's Logistics Terminal is on a very sharp left hand curve, followed by a similarly sharp right hand curve. This private branch OG 10 Jul 1985 at a cost of £700k (equivalent to over £2M now). Our train reached the entrance to the grain store building on the left hand track with thanks to Ian Hughes for point clipping at the terminal. Initially built for outward grain traffic such as to the Burghead branch in Scotland, with the demise of British Rail's Speedlink by Oct 1997 it was no longer handling rail freight and a section of track had been removed. However it was then used to store DMU cars (brought in by road and moved by rail, reportedly, on the private branch).

Inward stone traffic ran between 15 Jan and 30 Mar 2002. Subsequently seed potatoes were received from Elgin East by rail. Around 2012 to handle longer trains the exchange sidings were lengthened (they are certainly very long!). The first public passenger train, with 574 passengers on the branch was 'The Four Triangles' on Sat 9 May 2015. Charity Railtours who organised it spent about £1,500 on repairs and assisted with line clearance. Limestone traffic from Briggs Sidings (Hindlow) for road construction began on 20 Jun 2015. Our tour, propelling back around the double curves was unusual to say the least. However those of a certain age, will recall such things were once commonplace on charter trains; and even a few service trains too. We were grateful for DBC authorising this procedure.

Then to Norwich, and for me the main highlight of the tour after crossing over Trowse Swing Bridge, we veered left on to Line 'Y' to access Line 9. A quick change of direction saw us propel alongside the Cemex Pad in Riverside Freight Depot. At this point, word came through that stocks of food were low in the buffet! A real result for Railway Children, who benefited from the profits (it was staffed by qualified BLS volunteers who worked like Trojans turning out Bacon and Sausage baps). A requirement for the train crew to have their mandatory break coincided with the coaching stock receiving water and bagged rubbish being removed. During this time, 37424 & 37409 arrived back from Lowestoft.

Once all this had been completed, we departed via the Trowse Up & Down Loop and staggered back west. The differential line speeds (between DMUs and loco hauled trains) on this route is greatly noticeable when travelling on a charter. Passing Brandon, we spotted 66088 parked in one of the sidings.... strange place for a DBC loco to be left on a Saturday afternoon? (It was still there on 24 Sep!)

After passing east of Ely station on the bidirectional Through Siding, we made for Cambridge North and a required (for many) section of track, the facing crossover and Chesterton Jn Yard Run Round. A little while after we reached Cambridge itself, reversing on No2 Reception - previously Siding No4 before P7 & 8 were built. After running round, we set off back north, omitting Coldham Lane Down Goods Loop due to late running. We were held just south of Ely whilst the train crew ensured we had the Up Goods Loop which was done in the Down direction with the facing and trailing crossovers.

After Ely, we took the direct route to March, rather than via Littleport (added to the amended routing to offer the West Curve in the opposite direction), but it gained us a few more valuable minutes. At March our tour traversed No1 Goods Loop as No2 was occupied. The buffet had been so successful it had now sold out. Even all of Nobby's Nuts and those last few random items found down the back of the counters had been snapped up. At this point, I was ready to eat the proverbial horse, despite vowing in 1986 never to touch it again after being fed it on a school trip to the Normandy beaches.

During the Peterborough P4 set down we were awaiting a proceed signal aspect when Martyn Brailsford spotted that the ground position signal was lit (but inadvertently hidden from view by a man's head!). After the 'Right Away', our tour crossed the East Coast Main Line to the yard. We took the (South) Up Departure in the Down direction then a random crossover half-way along the route was the consolation 'red pen' track required by many to cross to the North Down Departure - anyone would think it had been planned like that! The recovery and pathing time built into the schedule by Network Rail was paying off; our deficit had now been roughly halved since leaving Eccles Road.

The Oakham Down Goods Line, nearly a mile long, was omitted (an onboard announcement said it was refused by the signaller which was the case). A specially authorised arrangement had been made for the signaller to clamp a set of points to allow us access. Unfortunately, as we were late he was busy dealing with a train heading in the opposite direction, including the level crossing, so could not leave the box, hence the refusal. However, the goods loop at Melton Mowbray was covered without issue - the better one of the two to do as it was taken out of use long term just 2½ hours later and may well not reopen; in fact we were the final non-engineer's train to use it. After we had passed no less than four engineer's trains were waiting to head into the possession on the route we had just left.

The booked schedule appeared very lax between Frisby and Mansfield Jn, a clear run would have made us 30mins early. However, the reason for this was evident with a large number of terminating trains from all directions joining up at Nottingham at this time of night to run ECS to depot. After our 15½ hour, 340 mile tour with over 270 participants, arrival was nine minutes early at 21.53. Pretty impressive given how late we were at one point! This goes to show why extra time is added into tour schedules which is surely better than some years ago when most seemed to run very late 'normally'? We are indebted to the DB Cargo staff aboard for working hard to agree the alterations necessary to overcome the motive power difficulties and to Richard Johnston Logistics for allowing access to their siding, in return for which a donation was made, at their suggestion, to Railway Children.

So, back at base and we headed off to find food, and to discuss the day. Here's to Cardiff in a few weeks time! An announcement was made that we had raised over £2,000 for Railway Children from the buffet, real ale sales, window decals and, of course, the raffle which was a great result. The following day I was destined for home, heading via Havant, Fareham and Basingstoke in search of required crossovers. Despite the best efforts of SWR to thwart my progress, it was a very successful day, helped immensely by data obtained from the excellent Realtime Trains website.

PS: With only having one loco on return to Burton-on-Trent, the Riviera ECS ran into the East Yard Departure Line (used by Maurice Hill Transport) to run round before shunting across at Wetmore Jn to Nemesis Rail Depot. The engine would have otherwise been 'trapped' at Nemesis by the stock.

Mileage Table by Jim Sellens

The Breckland Freighter historical tour map, with thanks to Dave Cromarty.

Sunrise at Ratcliffe Power Station (in light steam); adjacent East Midlands Parkway is the station with world's biggest water feature.
[© Geoff Plumb 2019]

East Midlands Parkway.
[© Geoff Plumb 2019]

Brandon Freight Yard, the junction end of train (the other end was on the stop blocks), the station and main line are behind the pile of stone.
[© Authorised Personnel.) 2019]

Eccles Road, Johnston's Logistics the rail served grain loading building shown on TRACKmaps near the end of line (left hand road).
[© Authorised Personnel 2019]

Inside the terminal, our friend Ian Hughes (positively glowing) who made this possible. The track was cleared and dug out especially for the tour.
[© Authorised Personnel 2019]

Norwich Riverside Freight Depot Line 'A'; only having one loco meant that the keen members were able to be nearer the end of line (shown bottom left). Norwich (Thorpe) passenger station is right, behind the piles of sand and stone.
[© Geoff Plumb 2019]

Norwich Riverside Line 'A'; the other end of the train, the passenger station can just be seen between the loco and the road van.
[© Geoff Plumb 2019]

Norwich Riverside Line 'A' looking southeast; the Norwich (Thorpe) station approach lines are to the left.
[© Geoff Plumb 2019]

(BLN 1334.2066 track plans) New sidings at Cambridge looking north with the station to the left. Right to left, first is the trackbed for future dead end Lines 9 & 8. Lines 7 (bottom right corner) & 6 are also dead end, then through Lines 5, 4 & 3.These are all new and make up the Thameslink Carriage Sidings. Next are Reception Sidings 2 (done by our tour) & 1 (the old 4 & 3 before P7 & P8 were built). The next lines are the split for P8 & P7.
[© Graham James 2019]

Looking south, Cambridge P8 & 7 is far right; the OHLE is up for future Lines 7 & 8 (left). Lower right is the connection to the future Wash Road.
[© Graham James 2019]

Further north looking towards Cambridge North are the Greater Anglia carriage sidings; Coldham Lane Down Good Loop begins left.
[© Graham James 2019]

A CrossCountry train to Birmingham passes the works compound (the future train wash site) north of Cambridge.
[© Graham James 2019]

The beautiful Ely Cathedral and the River Ouse photographed from the tour in the evening.
[© Geoff Plumb 2019]

A caption is probably unnecessary as everyone will immediately recognise Welney Road Level Crossing, just east of Manea station.
[© Geoff Plumb 2019]

Our 'Breckland Freighter' on Johnston's Eccles Road branch.
[© Geoff Plumb 2019]

Leaving the terminal (propelling away from the camera towards the Exchange Sidings!). Note the fine second hand ex-MoD concrete sleepers.
[© Ian Hughes 2019]

The end of line past the grain terminal, with a secret crossover to run round.
[© Ian Hughes 2019]

The Grain Terminal at Eccles Road, looking towards the end of line, before it was cleared or our tour and the track grooves dug out. (14 Sep 2019)
[© Ian Hughes 2019]

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