A look at the long forgotten overnight train from Yorkshire to Mid Wales
Till fairly recently, a lot of our post was delivered via rail with road for the last mile journeys to sorting offices. Before Railnet’s last hurrah for the Travelling Post Office, the TPO trains were a common feature of our railways. Mainline stations had dedicated platforms for the Royal Mail trains (platform 17 at Manchester Victoria station was one example). For a slight premium (an extra penny on a stamp), you could post your letters through the post box of a stationary TPO train.
Besides the principal city centres, small yet important towns had a Travelling Post Office train. Whitehaven was one example. Aberystwyth was another one, and this was served by a train from York via Shrewsbury and Stalybridge. Both services ensured the quick delivery of parcels, bills, personal letters and greetings cards to rural areas – whether Cumberland or Merionethshire.
The service bound for Shropshire’s county town and (sometimes) Mid-Wales also had limited passenger accommodation. A single British Rail Mark I carriage would be coupled to a rake of utility vans, the Travelling Post Office van itself, and the brake van. The Mark I passenger carriage (SK) was a standard class corridor carriage with space for 48 to 64 insomniac passengers. Sometimes, a BSK (standard class carriage with a brake van) would be used, carrying 24 to 32 night owls.
For some passengers who experienced the overnight service, it was a cheap and cheerful (though slow way) of crossing the Pennines. The leisurely journey time was suitable for dozing off.
“When you go home tonight, you must take the long way home…*”
During the early 1970s, the M62 was years away from being our default way of crossing the Pennines. Then, from 1973, its opening took a hit on passenger numbers on Trans-Pennine services. Even so, the Standedge line was a key artery for passenger and mail trains, parcels, and goods. Till 1988, we had the Royal Mail to thank for this railway oddity.
The York to Shrewsbury train (which at one point had extensions to Aberystwyth) ran along its full route to the Shropshire county town and the Welsh town off Cardigan Bay on weekdays. On weekends, the train terminated at Crewe, offering connections with another service to Shrewsbury.
In British Rail’s 1972 to 1973 Eastern Region timetable, the southbound service left York at 2150, arriving at Shrewsbury for 0259. Then it continued to Aberystwyth, arriving for 0655. There was intermediate stops at Leeds, Huddersfield, Stalybridge, and Stockport. At Stalybridge, some of the carriages were separated for the Liverpool Lime Street postal train.
From Stalybridge to Stockport, trains were routed via Ashton-under-Lyne towards Denton Junction (from Ashton Moss South Junction) before joining the Denton and Reddish South line. Or via Crowthorn Junction.
Typical haulage for the route included Class 25 and Class 47 locomotives. Class 45 Peaks and Class 55 Deltics also made their presence known on this route. During the 1980s, the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth section saw a loco change with Class 37s on summer Saturdays.
Decline and Fall
The 16 May 1988 saw the end of this fascinating overnight service. For rail based deliveries, 1988 was a transitional year anyway with newspapers being carted by road instead of rail. Its passenger service – the lone standard class corridor carriage attached to the mail van – was no more. Even so, the York to Shrewsbury Travelling Post Office train did continue after 1988. Its last letters were sorted in the early 1990s.
Appendix: Journey Times
Southbound Times (1972 – 73):
- York: 2150;
- Leeds: 2243;
- Huddersfield: 2312, departing at 2326;
- Stalybridge: 2356;
- Stockport: 0018;
- Crewe: 0110 (0122 on Sundays);
- Shrewsbury: 0259 (Mondays to Saturdays only);
- Aberystwyth: 0655 (weekdays only).
Total journey time: 9 hours, 5 minutes (5 hours, 9 minutes up to Shrewsbury).
It is worth noting that Stalybridge’s last train from Yorkshire formed part of the Shrewsbury service. Today’s last train leaves Stalybridge for Manchester Victoria at 2336 – twenty minutes earlier than 45 years ago. It is also a whopping 74 minutes later than the weekday service’s curfew.
Stalybridge’s last train towards Yorkshire is 2314 – 28 minutes later than in 1972 – 73 (2246 on weekdays and a minute later on Saturdays).
Northbound Times (1972 – 73):
- Shrewsbury: 2250 (weekdays only);
- Crewe: 0011;
- Stockport: 0051;
- Huddersfield: 0134, departing at 0148 (departs at 0142 on Mondays);
- Leeds: 0219 (0213 on Mondays);
- York: 0312.
Total journey time: 4 hours, 22 minutes.
2017 journey times
In comparison with 1972 journey times, a journey from York to Shrewsbury is slightly faster. The most striking difference is the lack of a direct train and the use of a bus for part of the journey. Today’s passengers would have to board the 2140 Transpennine Express to Manchester Airport, changing at Manchester Piccadilly. From Ringway, he or she would have to board the easyBus service to Telford (for Shrewsbury). Hence:
- 2140 York – Manchester Piccadilly: arriving at 2305;
- 2330 Manchester Piccadilly – Manchester Airport: arriving at The Station for 2347;
- 0020 Manchester Airport – Shrewsbury: easyBus service, arriving at 0210.
Therefore, he or she would have to pay for a train ticket to Ringway, then an easyBus fare down to Shropshire. On a minibus rather than a plush Class 185 DMU. A step backwards compared with the Mark I carriage?
In the reverse direction, your journey from Shrewsbury is 22 minutes longer than in 1972. Today’s passenger has to be in good time for the 2218 train to Wolverhampton then two others. Hence:
- 2218 Shrewsbury – Wolverhampton: arriving at 2255, making for a tight connection with the…
- 2259 Wolverhampton – Manchester Piccadilly: a leisurely 72 minute journey on the Class 220 Voyager unit (arriving at 0011) makes the going easy prior to a slack connection for our next train.
- 0053 Manchester Piccadilly – York: the 43 minute connection time offers enough time for a coffee break in the main concourse (Starbucks Coffee at Piccadilly is open 24 hours a day). The journey to York is 2 hours and 7 minutes, almost double the time of its daytime service and without a stop at Huddersfield.
For anyone who have had the joy of boarding the overnight service, it lives on in the hearts of rail enthusiasts. Younger travellers will find the concept of sharing a train with parcels, bills and greetings cards an alien concept. Not only on services like this one. Timetabled passenger services used to carry parcels in part of the train.
For example, the vestibule section of the Class 142 Pacer unit was designed for that purpose, though for BR’s Red Star Parcels. Hence the retractable seat on one side and glass panels where double sliding doors existed. (Before you ask, East of the M60 may look at Red Star Parcels in a future post).
Do you have any memories of boarding the York to Shrewsbury overnight service? Did you work on the 2150 from York? Feel free to comment and, more the merrier.
S.V., 15 February 2017.
* Supertramp saxophonist John Anthony Helliwell (at countless concerts since 1979).