Last Rides

 W55034 at Aylesbury on May 11 2017. CHRIS LEIGH

W55034 at Aylesbury on May 11 2017. CHRIS LEIGH

I can’t let today, May 19 2017, pass without comment. On a few miles of branch line in the Chiltern Hills between Aylesbury and Princes Risborough, Class 121 railcars will operate in public service for the final time.

Built in 1960, the last two 121s on the main line network have been operating peak time services between the two towns and serving the halts at Monks Risborough and Little Kimble on the way for nearly 15 years. Little Kimble, incidentally, is the least-used station in Buckinghamshire. They are the last of their kind on the network and the last of the first generation, slam-door diesel cars in service.

At 57 years they have served longer than any other BR-era train.

It was way back in 1962 that I first made acquaintance with what were then called Pressed Steel single-unit railcars. Much more recently they’ve become known as ‘bubble cars’, to my mind a wholly inappropriate nickname coined by enthusiasts.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    My first glimpse of a Pressed Steel railcar, W55021 at Staines West in 1962. CHRIS LEIGH

My first glimpse of a Pressed Steel railcar, W55021 at Staines West in 1962. CHRIS LEIGH

Tired of spotting the same old Bulleid ‘Pacifics’ at Weybridge, my brother and I had decided to look for a similar outer suburban wayside station on a different region. We chose Iver, and to get there meant sampling the infrequent service to West Drayton from Staines West. On walking through the booking hall of that wonderful old station, once the entrance hall of a wealthy businessman’s house, we were greeted with the sight of a lined dark green railcar standing at the buffers. W55021. It was one of 16 built by Pressed Steel to replace the last of the autotrains and old GWR diesel railcars. 20 similar vehicles had been produced by Gloucester RC&W in 1958.

Captivated by the rocking, rolling ride across Staines Moor, the brief pause at Poyle Halt and the exchange of single line tokens at Colnbrook, in one journey I had discovered the joys of both GWR branch lines and one-car diesel units. I’ve been hooked by both, ever since. Less than three years after that first ride, I hung  a ‘The End’ notice that I’d painted, on the rear of the last train from Staines West, regretting both the loss of that enthralling ride and the fact that the last day was operated by a three-car unit instead of my favourite single car.

After that, there were still Pressed Steels (now called Class 121) to be ridden from Windsor and Maidenhead to High Wycombe and Twyford to Henley. They lasted even longer, together with their Gloucester-built cousins the Class 122s, on services in the West Country, notably the St. Ives and Looe branches. When they had gone from the former Western Region, they moved to monopolise services between Bedford and Bletchley on that stump of the old Oxford-Cambridge line. By then, their numbers were in decline and several had been converted to Sandite cars, fitted with tanks to apply Sandite to rails in the leaf-fall season. Two others got converted into emergency vehicles to power a rescue train for use in the Severn Tunnel. They were scarcely recognizable after the surgery for that role.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    My first-ever model Pressed Steel single unit, made from Plastikard and Kitmaster bits, on a Kitmaster motor bogie. CHRIS LEIGH

My first-ever model Pressed Steel single unit, made from Plastikard and Kitmaster bits, on a Kitmaster motor bogie. CHRIS LEIGH

One was used by Arriva Trains Wales on one of its Welsh branch line services, and then Adrian Shooter’s Chiltern Trains carried out extensive modernization of W55020 and set it to work on the Aylesbury branch. Another, W55034 was then acquired from a private owner at Tyseley to share the workload. Then, several of the Sandite cars, including W55021, my ‘special’ unit, were laid up at Aylesbury pending disposal. Sadly, W55021 did not make it into preservation and was cut up.

I went to Aylesbury last week in order to take a final ride. I can’t bear to be there for the very last rites today. W55034 was on duty. It carries the early dark green livery but with yellow warning panels rather than the original ‘speed whiskers’. Could I evoke the old memories of the Staines branch, I wondered? Vivid white LED marker lights were the first obvious sign of change. A green colour light signal and the clang of the AWS bell soon dispelled any illusion that this was a 1962 branch line.

The rolling ride was still the same, but continuously welded flat-bottom rails don’t give the wonderful clickety-clack of jointed bullhead.

Gone is the separate saloon for smokers, and though there’s still the great view forward through the cab (at one end only, as there always was) a ‘tannoy’ public address system has replaced the shout of the guard and magneticcentral locking prevents eager passengers from opening doors too soon. It doesn’t prevent them slamming those doors so hard that it makes you wonder how the hinges survived for 57 years!

As I stepped off W55034 at Aylesbury I realised that a little bit of magic has gone out of train travel in the past 57 years. A lot more will have gone out of it by this evening. Now we’ll only be able to enjoy the delights of the ‘bubble cars’ on preserved railways and, thankfully, plenty of them survive to be enjoyed still. Only one, I think, Gloucester –built No. W55000, on the South Devon Railway, has been fully restored to original condition, and it does look good! I hope more preservationists can be persuaded to get rid of high-intensity headlights and plated-over headcode boxes to return these historic railcars to how they should look.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Dapol’s new ‘OO’ Class 122 and its ‘N’ gauge equivalent pose in front of my ‘bubble car’ collection. All are Lima or Hornby, except the extreme left which is a hand-built Anbrico model. CHRIS LEIGH

Dapol’s new ‘OO’ Class 122 and its ‘N’ gauge equivalent pose in front of my ‘bubble car’ collection. All are Lima or Hornby, except the extreme left which is a hand-built Anbrico model. CHRIS LEIGH

When I got back to the Model Rail office the week after my trip, there was a pleasant surprise, a package from Dapol containing two samples of their new ‘OO’ Class 122. I was delighted to see that they had taken on board my comments about colour as we’d struggled to choose the closest possible green from an array of swatches. My sound-equipped ‘N’ gauge 121 (by Trains4U) is about to get its own layout, a Westdale ‘O’ gauge kit and a Tower Brass 122 have been brought to the workbench for completion, and my old Lima 121s and 122s are getting Hornby DCC-ready chassis. Modellers are privileged to have a way to turn the clock back even when we can’t do it in 12in:1ft scale!