Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Autumn Approaches

Sunday's motive power prepares for the day ahead.

The end of the season is approaching down at the NVR, and for the first time this year it felt like it during my TTI turn on Sunday.  There was a definite autumnal chill in the air and the trains were quite quiet.  Despite this, it was a good day and quite varied.  On the first train out I was tour guide to party of 50 silver riders who were on a coach tour of the area.  They were good fun and easy going so we had a relaxed round trip of the line.  There was a complete change on the second train as I had another party; this was a group of special needs children with parents and carers on a birthday outing.  They were a delightful bunch of kids, and I chatted to all of them on the journey.  I let each of them help clip a hole in their special tickets for their scrapbook, and it made it all a very interactive occasion.  They were a happy bunch, and nice to see so many smiles from both the children and adults at the end of the trip.

That was my tour guide duty done, and I was now free.  We had three more trains to operate, and as the TTI on duty couldn’t stay all day I offered to take the remaining services as its always enjoyable working the trains.  I missed one service out, however, and used the time to visit places at Wansford I rarely get to visit and have a coffee and natter with volunteers in the gift shop and bookshop.

 Recalling the days of my mis-spent youth - window hanging out of Mk1 
coaches with a rasping class 31 up front.  Happy days!

We were running a two loco service during the day, with the trusty 4F – now nearing the end of its sojourn on the NVR – and resident ‘Goyle’ 31108 on alternate services.  Preparations were also in hand for next week’s big event – the 1940’s Weekend with a spectacular line up of entertainment planned.  I’m due to be spending 3 days down at the railway covering this event, but not in my usual NVR capacity as I have something completely different planned!

This is a rather brief post as I'm rather busy this week with so many projects in hand that I don't know where to start!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Mingling on The Orient Express

I don’t often get the chance to work on the railway during the week as I’m normally out earning a crust in order to pay for all the mistakes made by the Inland Revenue or whatever fancy title they now call themselves.  On Wednesday, however, the railway was hosting a meeting of the Peterborough Business Forum on board one of the trains to make a nice change from the usual hotel conference room set up.  Therefore, the NVR needed a representative from the railway who could meet and greet delegates on arrival at Peterborough, then accompany them on the journey whilst generally mingling and promoting the railway as a whole.  The role required somebody eloquent, calm, knowledgeable and friendly to undertake this task.  Unfortunately all the eloquent, calm, knowledgeable and friendly people were off on holiday or otherwise tied up, so I got asked if I’d like to do the gig.

I was delighted to accept another interesting and different facet of the railway’s operation, and duly popped down to Wansford for an interesting day.  The party would join the second train of the day at Peterborough, so I decided to travel down on the first service and be ready to meet people as they arrived at Peterborough.  This would allow plenty of time to get ready, as well as prepare the coach for the visitors on the way down.  The Managing Director of the NVR would travel down on the next train and officiate with a welcome speech before mingling with the group.

Stock for the day consisted of the Polish Slask tank 5485 with four DSB coaches for the public and three Wagon-Lits.  It was a busy day, as in addition to my group there was a lunch party taking up the second Wagon-Lit for a Ploughman’s Silver Riders Special, whilst the DSB coaches would host two school parties and the unsuspecting general public.

I travelled down the line with Steven who was preparing the lunch settings, plus Eddie who is also a TTI and had just popped in for the day.  At Orton Mere we were dropping off some cleaning cloths and a large roll of tissue paper.  The cloths were passed over TPO mail-drop style from the moving train, but the kitchen roll was too bulky to fit through the window.  So it got dumped at the end of platform, meaning that Old Arkwright would have to walk up for it.

On arrival at Peterborough I had the chance to have a sit down and proper chat with Peter, Sue and Trudi who run the station on a regular basis.  Normally I only see them briefly when on TTI duty, as we pop in for a bit of banter during the 10 minute dwell whilst the loco runs round.  I’ve not actually been at Peterborough and watched a train leave before as I’m always on it!  The chance was too good to miss, and as I had my trusty Panasonic tucked inside my jacket as usual, I took some pictures and a nice clip of film as the train departed from the station.  For filming I always use a tripod, although on this occasion I didn’t have one as it wouldn’t fit into my pocket.  Something for Primark to pass on to their Quality Control department.  Instead, I found that resting it on a fence post worked adequately, although there was a slight list to starboard.  This was cured by folding up a Wansford platform ticket and resting the edge of the camera on it – I always knew it would come in useful one day.

Once the train had gone, we got down to the serious business of having lunch, coffees and a good natter until the first delegates began to arrive.  Originally 12 people were expected, but that had risen to 40 by the day itself - a very good turnout for this type of meeting.  I have to say that without exception they were friendly and interested in what the railway had to offer.  The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, and they were clearly impressed at the idea of travelling in the Orient Express coaches (well, near enough.  I mean; they’ve been in the film so that counts).  The local paper, Peterborough Evening Telegraph, popped down for a group photo so I’m hoping that somebody has got a copy for my scrapbook.  I rarely get into photos as I have a face for behind the lens rather than in front of it, but as I was smart and had done my hair (well, washed it) I took my place in the line-up.

The journey was a good one and the delegates mingled with each other quite happily.  When the train departed from Wansford for the Yarwell leg, the atmosphere was good enough to give them the full Thomas treatment normally provided at children’s events.  The delegates were given the choice of ‘lights on’ or ‘lights off’ when travelling through the haunted tunnel – and they unanimously voted for ‘off!’  I primed them to look out for the ghost, and actually raised a bigger cheer and ‘oooooh’ than on most Thomas trips!  It certainly created a great mood on the train, and I can guarantee that you don’t get that in your business meeting at a Holiday Inn.  Unless you get locked in the linen store with a Polish chambermaid, but that’s a different story.  And it wasn’t my fault that all hotel doors look the same.....

On the return journey down to Peterborough I gave an informal guided tour of the line and facilities – and not just because I have the biggest mouth on the NVR.  That is purely coincidental.  I was keen to promote Ferry Meadows and Nene Park as an integral part of a family day out on the railway, because the two go hand in hand so well.  The mood was great as the train rolled back into Peterborough, and everyone commented on the day as they left the train to return to their offices, or more likely, the pub.  Next year’s Forum hosts will have to work hard to beat our efforts!

The return to Wansford was ‘on the cushions’ in 1st class Wagon-Lit splendour, which made a nice change.  I couldn’t hang around when I got back as I was heading off to Kings Cliffe for a photoshoot – but that’s one for my other blog …

Monday, 13 September 2010

Steam & Cream

44422 leaving Wansford in the 1950's.

It was our autumn steam event down at the NVR over the weekend, and rather enjoyable I thought.  Rather than compete with the big Steam Galas currently on offer around the country, the NVR did everything in house with an emphasis on small and personal.  Locos in steam included the Fowler 4F; Austerity 22 and the Polish Slask tank loco 5485.  Passenger trains ran with the 4F and Austerity operating alternately on the Mk1 rake and 5485 on the DSB’s, resulting in prototypical consists.  Highlight was the operation of several freight trains hauled by the Austerity and 4F in between passenger duties.  Thomas was also in steam, sans face, operating top n’ tail shuttles between Wansford and Yarwell.  Our flagship loco, City of Peterborough, is out of service under repair so was not available for traffic, but was moved to the bay platform to facilitate cab visits.  This positioning permitted some great evening shots as the sun gradually descended on Saturday.  Finally the Bullied Pacific 92 Squadron was shunted into the cafĂ© platform (known as the loco crew drive-thru!) for inspection by the public.  Members of the Battle of Britain Locomotive Society were on hand to discuss the loco’s restoration with interested visitors.

You need one hell of a tin opener to get inside this spam can.

My role for Saturday was TTI and the atmosphere was good with well-filled trains throughout the day.  Towards the end of the afternoon I was preparing the last passenger train for departure when a family group approached, led my Vicky Pollard in her size 39 tracksuit.  They’d bought tickets for Ferry Meadows because they wanted to go there for the day.  At 4:10 pm.  With their disabled mother.  I told them that as this was the last train, they’d only get half an hour at Ferry if they left the train on the outward trip and rejoined it on the return leg.  They weren’t happy about this, and complained loudly.  The only other option was to travel in the freight wagons, and then they complained even more loudly.  I suggested they simply upgrade their tickets and have a round trip.  No way; they weren’t going to spend anymore money than strictly necessary.  Need the rest for fags n’ booze innit?

I thought that was that, but got accosted again on my way down the platform.  “This is all a con you know,” Vicky Pollard informed me.  “We’ve brought our kid down ‘ere special to see Thomas an’ he ain’t ere.”
Oh for f…
I pointed out that Thomas was not only here; he was in steam at the end of the platform complete with nameplates and Number 1 on the tanks.
“Yeah but he ain’t got ‘is face on.”
“Madam; if his face is anything like yours then we can say thanks to the Lord for making it so.”  Okay, okay – I didn’t really say that.  I wanted to, but protocol and all that … instead of which I tried to explain about the steam gala; the fact that Thomas was here every other day of the year and that just for this weekend we remove the face and run it as an 0-6-0 shunting locomotive.  Just as it states on the website.
“We ain’t got no website,” was Vicky’s reply, although I think what she meant was, ‘I can’t read but I can watch my 54 inch TV what you bought me with your taxes.’
Fortunately, thanks to Vicky’s inability to tell the time I only had to put up with her group on the final train and not for the whole day, which otherwise was a great success.

If it says Thomas on the nameplate but you can't read, 
does it still say Thomas?  Discuss.

Sunday was a whole new experience for me.  I wasn’t on duty as such, but Jayne was doing catering on the trains and was desperately short of staff.  Short enough to ask me to help out.  The lunchtime train was serving Ploughman’s lunches in the Club Car; when it returned to Wansford it would be turned round for afternoon cream teas on the 14:45 service.  This was an excellent idea, and I’d seen how popular they were the previous day.

I turned up at Wansford nice and early in order to get some good pictures of the freight trains, before starting on the lunch service.  Only three of us were doing the catering, but we were well prepared and the Ploughman’s went out smoothly and successfully.  It was proper food service as well; plates, cutlery and crockery – the works.  None of your cardboard and Styrofoam rubbish on Jayne’s Trains at the NVR!

The cream tea service wasn’t pre-booked as the lunches had been, so it was all done to order.  With tea, coffee, scones and a choice of three types of cake the service was very ‘bitty’ and I’d have appreciated the services of an octopus as I tried to manhandle the teapots, coffeepot, milk pot, cashbox and take orders – plus take the platter with the different cakes around to show people.  Methinks I got the short straw …  It didn’t help that tea was the most popular option, and the teapots held around four cups before running out – and this got more problematic the further I walked down the coach because the walk back for refills got longer each time.  I also need to teach young Steven how to make tea.  He was fine with gnat’s piss, but the train was populated with lots of pensioners who know exactly how tea should be made.  Take away their pensions and heating allowance; confiscate tartan rugs and comfy slippers and you may get a glance of disapproval.  Dick around with their tea and you’ll never hear the end of it.

To complicate matters further, the adjoining coach had a party of 30 old folk on an outing – and they got a sniff of what we were up to.  Well, it would have been churlish to refuse and make them walk to the bar car where they’d get a Styrofoam cup, so we served those who wanted them as well.  Mark 1 coaches have never seemed so long!  We also began to run short of hot water so I was glad when Peterborough hove into view.  

Despite the logistical problems everyone got served on time and only the last table served received cold tea – which we replaced with fresh cups at Peterborough where we had an urn brewing away waiting for our arrival.  Everyone was happy, and we even served a few bonus afternoon teas on the return leg of the trip to Wansford as well.

Working the trains makes you appreciate just how hard the catering staff work on a day to day basis, and you come away with renewed respect for what they do – very much the unsung heroes of the operation.  There’s talk of doing more of these services next year.  I think I’ll stick to eating the leftovers!

The sun sets on another successful event at the NVR.  

The full photo set may be seen here as part of my Steamy Scenes Photo Gallery.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Delivering The Mail

I mentioned last time that I’d been offered the opportunity to work on the Thomas and The Travelling Post Office (TPO) event this weekend, which offered something a bit different to my usual TTI duties.  Essentially I gathered that I was required for crowd control purposes as the event has its own Tour Group Leader (Marilyn) who takes care of the talky bits, and the TPO Group themselves handle the operation of the train.  So, it would be a nice easy day with only three trains to worry about, and all I had to do was escort the participants to and from the viewing gallery at Yarwell.  How hard could it be?

Well, anything that sounds too good to be true invariably is, and I really should have known better.  As there wasn’t much information about what would happen, I decided to wing it once the first load of passengers arrived for the 11:00 departure.  Passengers ride down to Yarwell inside the TPO coaches as part of the experience, but as they are parcels vans this means they are rather dark and gloomy inside.  Especially as the lights didn’t work because of a problem with the alternator!  However, everybody boarded and – we sat in Wansford.  I was aware that there was a complicated shunt movement going on, and this overran to the extent that we were some 30 minutes late in departing.  Not ideal when you’ve got 60 parents and small children confined to a parcels van by any means.

At length we arrived at Yarwell and our passengers alighted from the vans.  Fiona (another TTI) and I escorted the party down to the lineside apparatus that handles the dropping off and collecting of mailbags.  It took me back to school trip days, as we had to chivvy people along who kept stopping to go to the toilet / pick blackberries and stop to watch Thomas as he propelled the stock back to the tunnel mouth in readiness for the run up.

As I have the loudest mouth at the NVR I gave the group a short talk as to what was about to happen before Thomas did his three run pasts, dropping bags and collecting pouches on the way.  The audience was quite enthralled, especially the children who had a rare chance to witness Thomas in action from the lineside.  Normally they only see him at the station, so to witness a high-speed run is something of a novelty.  After the third run we escorted the group back to Yarwell and returned them to Wansford.  People were polite rather than effusive with thanks when they left; however we sorted out all the issues raised on the spot and placated those who were rightfully upset about the initial delay with some responsive action that kept everyone happy in the end.  Apart from a party of Americans, who just wanted to complain because – well, because they’re American and that’s what they do best.  Presumably if we’d been dishing out burgers on the train they’d have been happy, but basically they simply personified the stereotype American tourist that is often parodied on TV.  I don’t take Americans seriously as life is too short, so Marilyn handled that one.

Once the train was empty we had a chance to discuss what had gone wrong, and more importantly, how to build on the experience and improve it.  Now that I’d seen the operation I knew where the problems lay and how to sort them out.  By working closely with Marilyn we created a good PR team and worked off each other like a double act instead of getting in each other’s way.  This proved to be successful as the second and third trains ran very smoothly, and we received many compliments as passengers left us when we returned to Wansford.

When Sunday dawned everything was in position, so we began the day on the right foot with an on time departure and a full (84 passengers) complement.  By now we were familiar with each other and our roles, so the operation was slick and professional.  The crocodile to the apparatus was the slowest part, but you can’t hurry a toddler who doesn’t want to be hurried!  To help out, the TPO crew held the train at Yarwell until the group reached the viewing gallery so that they wouldn’t get distracted as Thomas trundled past and hold up the operation.  I also discovered that I could use the opportunity to create a party atmosphere down at the gallery.  I began with an explanation of what would happen, then each time Thomas reversed the stock down the line, I asked all the children to shout ‘Hello Thomas!’ as the loco passed.  With three runs taking place I urged them to shout louder each time, because if Thomas could hear them, he’d respond in kind on his whistle.  This duly took place on the third run thanks to an arrangement with the footplate crew who joined in the fun to make it special for the visitors.  During the mail drop runs, I scrambled up the bank to get a few pictures before returning to my temporary role as Butlins Redcoat – clearly I’ve missed my vocation in life.  Or I just like the sound of my own voice.

Each of the three trips loaded to capacity on Sunday which created a great atmosphere each time, especially the ‘Hello Thomas’ bit – the TPO crew told me later on that this could be heard all the way back at Yarwell Station!  Once the third run was complete and the groups returned to Yarwell, they had an opportunity to watch Thomas run round and get photos with him, and the TPO crew opened up the nets so that people could examine the equipment in detail that they’d just seen in use.  The train then left for Wansford, where the children had an opportunity to sort the mail into the original dockets inside the sorting coach; a great chance for more interactive fun that they enjoyed very much.

Overall, once the less than successful first run was over with, the event was very successful and up to the high standards of customer service we pride ourselves on delivering.  I was pleased with way that we acknowledged the problems and got together to tackle them head on in a straightforward manner, rather than shrug our shoulders and carry on regardless as some ‘service-led’ operations do all too often.  The end result was great teamwork all round, and more significantly, lots of happy and excited faces departing from the TPO coaches at Wansford.  That’s what makes being a volunteer on the railway worth doing in the first place.

So what next?  Well, next week a steam event is taking place and I’ll be here, there and everywhere, as it should be a busy and varied day.  More later!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

A Smashing Bank Holiday at Yarwell

The Bank Holiday weekend was a busy one at the railway with a great atmosphere on the packed trains, especially the Thomas shuttles.  I worked as TTI on both Sunday (44422 and the Mk1’s) and again on Monday in the DSB’s that had class 14 D9516 up front.  Although the Mk1’s are the pick of the coaches to travel in, I must say that on a busy train the DSB’s are a lot easier to manage, being open plan.

Time keeping was good both days, and everything seemed to run rather smoothly except for a single instance of vandalism on Sunday; amazingly enough at Yarwell Junction; hardly downdown Orton to say the least.  A child picked up a stone and threw it at the DSB coach in the platform.  It bounced off the bodywork, so the girl chose another stone and lobbed it straight through a window, shattering it.  Had a family been sitting there – it was a Thomas shuttle, remember – they’d have been showered with broken glass.  Not an appealing thought by any means.  What made the incident worse was that the girl’s father was with her throughout the incident and said absolutely nothing.  So that’s another Vicky Pollard in the making it would appear.

Despite this, the weekend was good fun, and the people certainly enjoyed themselves on the trains I was working.  On Monday there was time for a spot of informal photography as the diesel hauled DSB’s tend to be quieter than the steam hauled Mk1 trains.  I had some lovely chatty family groups on board; a real pleasure to have time for a chat after a week in my lorry speaking only to dodgy car dealers!

Next weekend is promising another new experience for me as I’ve been offered the opportunity to work on the demonstration TPO trains that will be hauled by Thomas between Wansford and Yarwell.

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