The story of Manchester’s former Boat Train service to Harwich Parkeston Quay
Since the Edwardian times, Manchester Victoria station’s canopy and tiled map proudly advertised the fact it was possible to travel from there to Leeds and the Hook of Holland. Its ticket office windows also reflect the scale of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s ambitions. Today, the railway station is a shadow of its former self, with only six platforms (down from 17) and a leaky roof. Alas, it is almost impossible to get to the Hook of Holland from Victoria without changing at Leeds.
Prior to the late 1980s, there was a direct train for the Hook of Holland ferries. Instead of Hull (as the tiled map suggests), it served the East Anglian port of Harwich. It was an InterCity service known as The European.
The original service linked Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley with the port of Harwich, ending its journey at Parkeston Quay terminal, via Nottingham. Prior to 1982, it traversed the Settle and Carlisle Line. With British Rail running down the line in preparation for future closure, it was rerouted via Manchester Victoria.
In 1982, Manchester Victoria was the city’s main railway station for Anglo-Scottish services. It was well connected by local bus services, had the Trans-Pennine Express services, and an express coach to Manchester Airport (Greater Manchester Transport’s 200 service). Whereas Manchester Piccadilly had one connection with the continent (the Class 124 Trans Pennine DMUs to Hull Paragon), The European offered rail users another option, via Harwich from Victoria.
From Scotland, trains would be joined at Carstairs Junction, with all-electric traction up to Preston. Typical carriages would be the air conditioned Mark 2Fs, built in 1971. South of Preston, these would be hauled by a Class 47 diesel locomotive, with the resultant 10 – 12 carriage train gracing Victoria’s long through platforms. After Miles Platting, the train would continue to Sheffield via the Phillips Park and Ashburys junctions, taking in Marple, New Mills and the Hope Valley line.
From Sheffield, it would follow the present day East Midlands Trains route to Norwich up to March, via Nottingham, Grantham and Peterborough. After March, it would reach Harwich Parkeston Quay station via Stowmarket and Ipswich, connecting with the Dutch ferries.
Minor Tweaks and Diversion
In 1986-87, Stockport was added as an intermediate stop. This was aided by the opening of the Hazel Grove Chord in the spring of 1986. Instead of using the line to Ashburys and taking in Marple and New Mills, trains were sent via Ashton Moss Junction and Denton Junction prior to reaching Stockport and Hazel Grove. From then on, it would use the chord prior to continuing its long journey to Harwich.
May 1987 saw a most controversial change to the timetable. The European would no longer serve Manchester Victoria, Sheffield and Nottingham. Instead, it would follow the West Coast Main Line all the way to Watford Junction via Birmingham New Street, with a slight detour in Willesden for Ipswich and Harwich Parkeston Quay. Though the journey time was reduced, the Mark 2s carried fresh air south of Birmingham. It was barely a footnote on the InterCity timetable.
Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham passengers were placated (or palmed off) with a more modest replacement. The southern section of the 1982 – 1987 service was renamed The Rhinelander. Trains operated from Manchester Piccadilly instead of Victoria. Again, Class 47s were used, albeit under the wires in Greater Manchester. The air conditioned Mark 2Fs were replaced by older Mark 2s from 1963 to 1968, this time with openable windows. First Class accommodation was discontinued.
The Rhinelander only operated for a year, as did its revised stablemate via the WCML. The 16 May 1988 saw an extension of the 1987 service to Blackpool North, using the newly opened Windsor Link. For 1988, it was renamed The Loreley. In spite of this improvement, there was a nasty sting in the tail. It involved the loss of loco hauled trains.
Class 156 Super Sprinter units would take over. The original service had 10 coaches. Its immediate successor had 7 coaches. The Loreley would be operated with just…
Though the timetable saw improved frequencies, there was terrible overcrowding on popular journeys – most of which hitherto at times The Rhinelander and The European had left at. The section between Manchester and Nottingham was most overcrowded. By 1989, busy services saw 4 coaches added. Even so, it was a marked contrast to the more comfortable Mark 2s.
The 1990s saw further change. The Loreley train was discontinued along with the Class 31 hauled Liverpool Lime Street to Sheffield and Cleethorpes service. Therefore, the Liverpool Lime Street to Sheffield section of the latter route would be absorbed by most of The Loreley up to March. Passengers were encouraged to change at Ely for Ipswich and Harwich trains. Beyond March, it would continue to Norwich.
Class 156s would remain part and parcel of the Liverpool Lime Street to Norwich service, well into privatisation. They would regularly feature on Central Trains’ service, along with state of the art Class 170 DMUs. The present franchisees, East Midlands Trains, use 2 or 4 car Class 158s, all attractively furnished. Today, it is not unknown for overcrowding to occur on 4 car units, particularly in the peak hours, or if a First Transpennine service to Sheffield is cancelled.
The Sheffield to Cleethorpes section would form part of North West Regional Railways’ Trans-Pennine Express routes. In 1994, they were extended to the new Manchester Airport railway station, reversing at Manchester Piccadilly, using Class 158 Express DMUs. Today, First/Keolis Transpennine Express operate this popular service, using Class 185 Siemens Desiro units. Even with 3 cars, passengers without a seat reservation may have difficulty finding a seat at Piccadilly. By Stockport, often no chance at all till Sheffield or Doncaster.
The Manchester Piccadilly to Blackpool North section continued to be operated by loco hauled trains till the mid 1990s, with Mark 2As often hauled by Class 37 locomotives. These too were replaced by Class 156 Super Sprinters, albeit with North West Express branding. They too form part of First Transpennine Express’ service, commencing at Manchester Airport, sometimes co-working with the Barrow-in-Furness train (which would split at Preston).
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Is it possible to retrace The European journey today?
To do The European journey, semi-verbatim in 2012 would require a great many changes. The National Rail website recommends boarding the Virgin West Coast train from Glasgow Central to London Euston, then a Tube to Liverpool Street, followed by a Greater Anglian train from there to Manningtree. A change of train is required from there to complete the journey to Harwich Parkeston Quay (known today as Harwich International).
The cheapest walk-on return fare is an eyewatering £144.10 with an average journey time of 7 hours and 15 minutes.
From Edinburgh Waverley, passengers need to board the East Coast service to London King’s Cross, again with a Tube to Liverpool Street from there. At Liverpool Street, a train to Colchester is required, where a change of train is required for the last leg to Harwich.
The cheapest walk-on return fare from Edinburgh is £142.00 with an average journey time of 6 hours and 45 minutes.
Supposing we remained true to the original premise (or near enough), today’s journey would be as follows:
From Glasgow Central:
- 1140 Glasgow Central – Preston (Virgin Trains);
- 1410 Preston – Manchester Piccadilly (Transpennine Express) – 33 minute connection at Piccadilly;
- 1520 Manchester Piccadilly – Sheffield (Transpennine Express) – 30 minute connection at Sheffield (quick half of a Thornbridge ale may suffice at The Sheffield Tap);
- 1638 Sheffield – March (East Midlands Trains) – approximately 1 hour to spare in March (consider The Hippodrome, a J.D. Wetherspoon house for a late tea time stop);
- 2004 March – Manningtree (Greater Anglia) – 25 minute connection;
- 2200 Manningtree – Harwich International (Greater Anglia) – arrival time: 2217.
Journey Time (including connection times): 10 hours, 37 minutes.
From Edinburgh Waverley:
- 1051 Edinburgh Waverley – Preston (Virgin Trains) – 8 minute connection at Preston;
- 1323 Preston – Manchester Piccadilly (Northern Rail) – 9 minute connection at Piccadilly (and thankfully, no need to switch platforms as you alight and board your next train on platform 13 – yay!);
- 1427 Manchester Piccadilly – March (East Midlands Trains) – 29 minute connection time in March;
- 1804 March – Ipswich (Greater Anglia) – 7 minute connection time in Ipswich;
- 1935 Ipswich – Manningtree (Greater Anglia) – 16 minute connection time in Manningtree;
- 2000 Manningtree – Harwich International (Greater Anglia) – arrival time: 2017.
Journey Time (including connection times): 9 hours, 27 minutes.
Now for the most important question: will it connect with my ferry to Hook of Holland? The answer…
The next ferry to the Hook of Holland is 2315, which is great if you’ve come in from Edinburgh, though cutting it fine if you’ve come in from Glasgow. The 2315 ferry would arrive in Holland by 0745 – sufficient time to weigh up Dutch rail operations and enjoy a decent look around Hook of Holland. Happy days!
In spite of all this I could stick to National Rail’s recommended route. However, it wouldn’t be true to shadowing the route of the lost European service which left Manchester Victoria, with 12 carriages and a Class 47 locomotive at the front.
S.V., 30 May 2012.