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“North Country Continental” LNER

A Famous Train of the LNER


One of the new 4-6-0 Locomotives, 1500 class, LNER

One of the new 4-6-0 Locomotives, “1500” class, Great Eastern Section, LNER.

IN more respects than one the train whose running we are going to follow in this article is among the most interesting in the country. First of all, its working now calls for one of the longest continuous locomotive journeys performed throughout the course of the year anywhere in the British Isles. The engine attached at Ipswich, on the northbound journey, at 8.2 in the morning, runs right through to Manchester (Central) 220 miles away and reached at 2.7 p.m, and then returns the next day to Ipswich again, the one crew being responsible throughout. On this trip the enginemen encounter a combination of grading and scenery which, for one unbroken journey, is probably unique. First from the engine-sheds by the side of the tidal estuary of the Orwell at Ipswich, then over the sharp ups-and-downs of pastoral districts through Bury to Ely, from there across the dead flatness of the Fen Country to Lincoln, then through coal-mining and manufacturing areas to Sheffield, and lastly up the toilsome gradients that lead to the summit of the bleak uplands of the Pennines, at Wood-head, ere the swift descent is made into the city of Manchester.

Other parts of the same train travel in various directions. A substantial section is worked northward from Lincoln to Doncaster and York, and achieves the distinction of making a return journey over a distance exceeding 400 miles daily - from Harwich to York and back, 435 miles - without touching one single town with as many as 100,000 inhabitants. This is in itself a record in Great Britain for a set of corridor coaches attached for the greater part of their journey to an up-to-date restaurant car express. It is of interest to note, by the way, that before the war the York and Harwich section of this express provided the “backbone” of its formation, Liverpool and Manchester being served by a couple of through coaches only. What is more, this was probably the first train in Great Britain that allowed to the humble third-class passenger access to a restaurant car.

After the war the main train was diverted to Liverpool, and after various rearrangements of service, too complicated to enter into here, York was once again provided with a through section over the direct route through Gainsborough and Doncaster. To this portion there is now added a through coach right up into Scotland, continuing along the East Coast route to Edinburgh and Glasgow, making a through journey of 471 miles from Harwich. The only section of the train now remaining to be mentioned is that which is detached at March on the forward journey, running from there eastward to Peterborough, and on over LMS metals to Rugby and Birmingham, 171 miles from Harwich. Between them, the various portions of this one train cover no less than 676 route miles of Great Britain daily.

As we have done on our previous journeys by boat trains we will travel towards the sea, rather than away from it, and this will mean following the various sections of the “North Country Continental” from the beginning of their journeys to Harwich. The first of these through vehicles involves us in an early start. By half-past eight in the morning we must present ourselves at the Queen Street Station of the LNER in Glasgow, as our coach is attached to the 8.37 a.m. express for Edinburgh, If we happen to be late in arriving we may derive some consolation from finding our quarry to be the last coach on the back of the train, and the nearest therefore, to the platform barrier.

We are in mixed company. Next to us are a couple of corridor coaches with passengers for another port - Southampton. These are usually Great Western vehicles, and connect with the steamers from Southampton to Havre and the Channel Islands. Next beyond these are a couple of East Coast coaches for King’s Cross, destined to be attached at Edinburgh to the “Flying Scotsman”. The remaining four or five cars are non-corridors, for local passengers between Glasgow and Edinburgh. At the front of the train is either one of the Great Central 4-4-0 “Directors”, which have taken so important a part in the working of the LNER express services in Scotland, or, quite likely, one of the new three-cylinder 4-4-0’s of the “Shire” class.

Starting out of Queen Street terminus is no easy business The line vanishes into the black recesses of a tunnel, so that its inclination is not visible from the platform. It is actually at 1 in 42 for 1¼ miles, and for many years outward-bound trains were pulled up to Cowlairs by a wire rope worked from a stationary engine at the summit of the bank. To-day each train is assisted in the rear up to Cowlairs by the engine that brought in the empty stock. Of this fact, travelling as we are in the rearmost coach, we shall have no uncertain reminder, as we listen to the vociferous exhaust of the “banker” - probably a 0-6-2 tank of the late North British - through the tunnels. We shall also find it very much in the interest of our comfort to keep the window of the compartment closed until we have cleared Cowlairs. A special slip-coupling, operated from the bank engine, keeps the latter attached to the train up to Cowlairs Station, passed in five or six minutes out of Queen Street, where the banker quietly drops off the rear.

A view of Parkeston Quay, Harwich

A view of Parkeston Quay, Harwich. The quay is altogether 2,809 ft in length. The passenger gangway leads direct from the Station Platform to the Quay, facilitating the boarding of passengers on the Hook of Holland steamers of the LNER.

Now, by way of contrast, we have before us the most singularly level stretch of line in the whole of Scotland - the more surprising, indeed, in that it cuts right across the centre of the country. Northward we have fine prospects, across the Forth Valley, first of the Campsie Fells and then of the hills round Stirling; later the estuary of the Forth comes into view. There is a “conditional” stop at Lenzie Junction, and then a regular stop at the important junction of Polmont, from which we are booked to make the run of 201 miles into Haymarket Station at Edinburgh in 26 minutes, and may quite possibly do it in 24 minutes or even less.

Very prominent after Linlithgow are the great tips of shale that have been left as refuse after the extraction of the valuable oil found in this neighbourhood. We are due at Haymarket at 9.42 a.m, and if we are a minute or two early, or the North train is late, quite probably we shall sweep up the four-track “straight” from Saughton alongside the Aberdeen section of the “Flying Scotsman”.

At 9.46 a.m. we are due in the great Waverley Station at Edinburgh. Here some busy moments await the station staff, as much marshalling has to be done round about ten o’clock in the morning. We are pushed about hither and thither, the first consideration being to get the East Coast coaches in front of us attached to the rear of the “Flying Scotsman”, due to leave at 10 a.m. In the summer months the Southampton and Harwich coaches leave Glasgow later, at 8.55 a.m, with the “Junior Scotsman”, which forms the second part of the “Flying Scotsman” proper, starting from Edinburgh at 10.15 a.m, and they run on to Newcastle in the same distinguished company.

From the middle of October, however, one “Scotsman” only suffices for the London traffic, and a special train is therefore run behind the “Scotsman”, at 10.15 a.m, to bring these vehicles down to York. One cannot help thinking that the tremendous tractive power of the LNER “Pacifies” ought to permit, at least as far as Newcastle, and except, possibly, at week-ends, of the attachment of these through coaches to the “Scotsman” itself, thus saving in locomotive mileage. Two or three LNER corridor coaches are attached at Edinburgh to the three through vehicles, and a North Eastern “Atlantic” has the simplest of tasks in running this train of five or six cars over the 57½ miles to Berwick in 71 minutes, and thence along the 67 easily-graded miles to Newcastle in 80 minutes.

By now it is 12.48 a.m, and as there has been no restaurant car attached as yet to our train, we shall probably be feeling the pangs of hunger. But one is waiting for us at Newcastle, and we may well rub our eyes in astonishment to see it attired in the chocolate and cream livery of the Great Western Railway! With a couple more Great Western coaches, it is provided by that company to run through to Oxford with the Southampton portion of our train; we enjoy the use of it as far as York.

Our engine from Newcastle to York is probably a 4-4-0 three-cylinder “Shire”. The only inter-mediate stop is at Darlington, whence we are booked to-make the fastest run of our journey, covering the 44 miles to York in 48 minutes, at an average speed of 55 m.p.h. But the section concerned, as you doubtless know, is almost dead level and practically straight throughout.

At York, where we are detached from the Southampton train, there is a tedious wait of 47 minutes ere we are due to leave for Lincoln - time enough, indeed, to hurry round to the most interesting Museum of railway relics, early locomotives included, which the London and North Eastern Railway have established close to the station. Before 3.25 p.m. we must be back in our places, however, as at that hour we are due to start away again. In charge, probably, of a North Eastern “Atlantic”, we make stops at Selby, Doncaster and Gainsborough - just before reaching which we cross the wide River Trent by a girder bridge of considerable size - and reach Lincoln at 5.15 p.m. Incidentally, we shall have had fine views en route of four cathedrals - Newcastle, Durham, York and Lincoln and if it is still light we shall catch sight of a fifth, at Ely, before the journey’s end.

But now we must put the clock back for three hours in order to cross the country to Liverpool, where we find the main restaurant car portion of the “North Country Continental” waiting for us at the Central Station of the Cheshire Lines Committee. This, the largest of all the British “joint” lines, was before the grouping a combination of the Great Northern, Great Central and Midland Railways; now, of course, the companies interested are the LNE and LMS Railways. The CLC have their own coaches and wagons, but locomotive power throughout has been provided by the Great Central, and it is one of the smaller Great Central 4-4-0 engines, now superheated, that we shall doubtless find at the head of our train for the 34-mile run to Manchester. The load, for most of the year, consists of three corridor coaches, next the engine, for Grimsby and Cleethorpes; then the boat portion - a third-class brake, composite, combined first-class restaurant and kitchen car, open third-class car and third-class brake - and on the rear a through LMS coach for Sheffield, a tare load of about 275 tons.

LNER (GE section) 4-6-0 locomotive No. 1536. This type of engine is used to work the North Country Continental

LNER (GE section) 4-6-0 locomotive No. 1536. This type of engine is used to work the “North Country Continental” of the LNER throughout the journey from Ipswich to Manchester Central.

The Cheshire Lines Committee have long maintained a reputation for the punctual running of the 45-minute expresses between Liverpool and Manchester. The journey includes a stop of a minute at Warrington, and as there are some fairly steep intermediate grades the engines have no time to spare. Most of the expresses leave at the even half-hour, but the boat train is an exception, being due away at 2.5 p.m. Out of Liverpool the line is in tunnel for over two miles, save for a brief breathing space past the large marshalling sidings at Brunswick, but at St. Michael’s we come out into the open, the loudness of the engine exhaust indicating that hard work is being put in to keep time. There is a gradual rise to Hunt’s Cross and Halewood, then a drop to Hough Green and a rise to Farnworth, whence the fall at 1 in 170 past Sankey may produce a maximum 70 miles an hour, if we are running well.

Warrington we reach at 2.28 and leave at only remaining obstacle is the ascent from Glazebrook to cross the Manchester Ship Canal at Irlam, where the line had to be raised, at the expense of the Ship Canal Company, on a gradient of 1 in 135 for two miles, sufficiently high to clear the masts of the liners passing underneath. The Partington Steel Company’s works are a very prominent object here to the right of the train, on the banks of the canal. From the viaduct down to Flixton, where the original main line of the CLC is clearly seen well below the left of the train, we probably exceed 60 miles an hour, and when finally we breast the sharp rise from Throstle Nest Junction, up over the great steel viaduct into Central Station it is to come to rest at precisely 2.50 p.m.

Here the first operation is to detach the LMS coach from the rear, or what is now to become the front, of the train, ere we see backing on what is indeed a “stranger” so far to the west of the country as this. Very spick-and-span, and with tender piled high with coal in view of the length of run ahead, the Great Eastern 4-6-0 is coupled to our train in readiness for a journey right across Britain from one side to the other. We have already made the acquaintance of these engines when travelling on the “Hook Continental” from Liverpool Street to Parkeston Quay, when we noted the exceptional tractive power of a locomotive of but 44 tons adhesion and 64 tons total weight. Our steed to-day is of the same type, save that possibly one of the newest 10 - numbered between 8571 and 8580 - may be provided, distinguished from the others by the raised framing over the coupled wheels and the extended smoke box.

Punctually to time at 3.5 p.m. we are away. The run immediately ahead of us, despite the fact that our gross load, with passengers and luggage, does not exceed 260 tons, is one of the hardest of the journey. After a swift start down to Throstle Nest, where we must slacken for the Chorlton direction, and a further slack at Chorlton Junction where we leave the Cheshire Lines for LNE metals, we have a steady ascent before us for 25 miles until we have breasted the Pennines at Dunford Bridge. You doubtless remember travelling over the same route in the opposite direction, when we tried the “3.20 down Manchester” out of Marylebone.

There are slight easings of the grade past Guide Bridge and across the viaducts at Mottram and Dinting, but after the latter, for 74 miles up through the high hills, past the picturesque chain of reservoirs which fringe the left side of the line, the line is inclined at 1 in 117 to 1 in 100. Guide Bridge must be passed at 3.22 p.m, and then only 22 min. are allowed for the 14¼ miles up to Woodhead, where we enter the famous three-mile tunnel of that name, and five min. more to the summit at Dunford Bridge, 3¼ miles further, so that the speed up these formidable grades must average 39 m.p.h. Continuously.

Then a swift descent past Penistone to Sheffield, with an allowance of 22 min. for the 19 miles in order to discourage excessive speed over the many sharp intermediate curves, brings us into Sheffield Victoria Station at 4.11 p.m. Here we get rid of the Cleethorpes coaches, which follow us to Retford on a subsequent train. A minute later we may see arriving on the opposite side of the station the Southampton train that convoyed our Glasgow coach as far as York. The coach in question was worked from York to Sheffield by this route for a time, joining the main train here, until the direct train from York to Lincoln was reinstated.

From Sheffield, left at 4.18 p.m. to Lincoln the 4-6-0 engine has but a light load; for a large part of the year it amounts to no more than five coaches. The timing is easy by comparison with that we have just tried to keep from Manchester, and in the event of a late arrival at Sheffield the lost minutes can easily be recouped before Lincoln. At Woodhouse, after passing through a deep cutting that has been opened out from what was previously a tunnel, we diverge to the left from the London main line and pass over a high embankment that was once a long brick viaduct across the valley, but has now been filled in. A brief stop is made at Worksop at 4.45 p.m. and then we hurry down a falling grade to Retford, where the East Coast main line is crossed on the level - a survival of early days of which but few examples still remain, though there are many such railway crossings in America.

Manchester Central Station, Cheshire Lines Railway

Manchester Central Station, Cheshire Lines Railway. This imposing Station covers 10 acres of ground and contains nine platforms and no less than 13 roads.

The only other engineering work of note, is the bridge crossing the River Trent at Torksey, and at 5.20 p.m. we run across a busy road level crossing - a serious hindrance to prompt traffic working at Lincoln, but, presumably, too costly a subject for replace-ment by a bridge - into High Street Station, 42½ miles from Sheffield.

At Lincoln we attach the North portion, which arrive five minutes earlier, and our load is thus brought up to a minimum of nine corridor coaches. We leave again at 5.32 p.m. and for many miles ahead there are no difficulties of any kind confronting the engine. The old “Great Eastern and Great Northern Joint Line” as it was before the days of grouping, cuts in a straight line across the flat Fen Country of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, and once we have mounted a gentle rise from Lincoln to Potterhanworth, and attained 65 miles an hour or so on the subsequent descent to Branston, speed should keep just nicely round about the “sixty” level until the next stop at Spalding.

The “North Country Continental” in the reverse direction makes a diversion from the main line to call also at Sleaford, adding thereby a couple of miles to its journey, but we take the straight line between the North and South Junctions at Sleaford and are allowed 46 minutes in which to cover the 38¼ miles from Lincoln to Spalding. A couple of minutes standing and we are away again, to make the brief run of 19 level mites from Spalding to March in 26 minutes. Just before running into March, which is reached at 6.46p.m, we pass the extensive sidings at Whitemoor, to which considerable additions, laid out on the “gravity” principle and equipped with all the latest devices for speeding up the work of marshalling, are just being made. March requires a six-minute stop, and then follows another level run over the 15½ miles to the cathedral town of Ely, for which 22 min. are allowed. It is now 7.14 p.m.

At Ely the final addition is made to our load. Just before 4 o’clock in the afternoon (at 3.55 to be precise), our two Birmingham coaches left New Street Station in that city, attached to a train of the LMS bound for Peterborough. Their initial run - to Coventry - has been the fastest made by any portion of the “North Country Continental” as with the best Birmingham-Euston expresses the 18.9 miles are allowed only 20 minutes, start to stop, entailing an average speed of 56.7 m.p.h. Then followed a 14-min. run over the 11.4 miles to Rugby. From Rugby across country to Peterborough, through Market Harborough and Seaton, the LMS train is of “semi-fast” character - in fact you could leave Birmingham more than an hour later, travel to Euston, and still have a comfortable 50 minutes in which to get across to Liverpool Street and catch the “Hook Continental” if you were not encumbered with luggage. Actually its journey of 50¾ miles from Rugby, left at 4.37 p.m, takes as much as 93 minutes. Thus it was 6.10 p.m. when the “Black Country” portion rolled under the great girder bridge carrying the Great Northern main line of the LNER into Peterborough East Station. Here the coaches were taken charge of by a locomotive of the LNER which ran them over the 14¾ miles to March in 20 minutes, and thence after a three-minute stop ahead of us to Ely where they arrived nine minutes earlier, at 7.5 p.m.

So we have now our full load. This is at the least, 11 cars, weighing probably about 340 tons, but when last I saw this train, in the height of last summer, it had 14 coaches on, mostly of the latest East Coast type stock, weighing empty 437 tons and with passengers and luggage fully 460 tons. At Ely important connections are given to Norwich, Cambridge, and the Eastern Counties generally.

We are due out of Ely at 7.22 p.m, and then follows immediately what is -by comparison with, say, the tremendously busy lines between Liverpool and Sheffield over which we have passed - the strangest part of the journey. For from here to Chippenham Junction, near Newmarket, a distance of 12 miles, we have to run over a single track. The single-line tokens must be exchanged en route, and this necessitates severe slowings through Soham and Fordham, as well as at the junction last mentioned.

We do not pass through Newmarket, but skirt the margin of the famous “Heath” and join the Cambridge and Bury line at Snailwell Junction. On account of the slow running just mentioned it is necessary to schedule as much as 42 min. for the 28 miles from Ely to Bury St. Edmunds. Leaving the latter town at 8.6 p.m. we run eastward to Haughley, where another severe slowing is required as we join the main line from Norwich to Liverpool Street. From Haughley to Ipswich the line is downhill throughout, and with a final “burst” at 60 miles an hour, or slightly over, we thread East Suffolk Junction and run into Ipswich Station at 8.43 p.m. having covered the 26½ miles from Bury in 37 minutes. Here the locomotive that has done us such excellent service all the way from Manchester is uncoupled, and runs quietly away through the tunnel ahead of us to the engine-sheds on the banks of the Orwell.

At St Michael’s we come out into the open

At St Michael’s we come out into the open, the loudness of the engine exhaust indicating that hard work is being put in to keep time.

For our last stage of just over 20 miles we have the services of one of the 4-6-0 engines stationed at Parkeston Quay, which has probably been up to London, down from there to Ipswich by an evening express, and is now waiting to get “home”. This locomotive that has come down from Liverpool Street is attached to a train hailing from Liverpool

At 8.48 p.m. we enter the tunnel, take water, very likely from the track-troughs at Halifax Junction - the first trough we have seen all the way from Liverpool! - and mount the 2½ miles at 1 in 125 to Belstead Signal box. A quick run down to the Stour Valley, with a last “60” maximum, precedes a severe slowing over the North curve at Manningtree, which takes us on to the Harwich branch. Sharp ups-and-downs along the right bank of the Stour estuary have to be negotiated with our heavy load, and then, as we run down the final incline from Wrabness, the lights of our arrival being timed at 9.18 p.m. Parkeston Quay bear into view dead ahead.

We are not allowed to stand at the long platform any longer than is necessary to unload passengers and luggage, as the “Esbjerg Continental” is due from Liverpool Street at 9.31 p.m, the “Hook Continental” 11 min. after that, and the “Antwerp Continental” 10 min. later still. This is one of the reasons why our timings have been on the leisurely side, as punctuality of arrival at Parkeston is of vital importance, and there is ample margin for recovery of lost time should one of our many connections put in a late appearance en route. After leaving Parkeston Quay we have but another two miles to run, calling on the way at Dovercourt Bay, ere we “make the port of Harwich” at 9.31 p.m. We have had, as I am sure you will agree, a most interesting day.

Down North Country Continental passing St. Michael's Station

Down “North Country Continental” passing St. Michael's Station, hauled by LNER (Great Central Section) “Pollitt” 4-4-0 Locomotive No. 5880.

You can read more on “Cross Country Routes”, “The Hook of Holland Boat Express” and “The 3.20 Down Manchester”, on this website.