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Saturday, 14 November 2015

The 2015 Challenge, day 13: Glenprosen to Foresterseat (13)

After a little way I emerged from the trees, and the old track bed stretched out ahead of me. Unusually for railways in these parts, it appeared that the embankment had been built to support a double track, not just a single track branch line. I also noted the impressive old telegraph pole on the right-hand side, with enough cross-bearers to support an incredible array of wires. Yet despite these two glaring pieces of evidence, still I didn't twig their significance, or realize what this old trackbed represented.

This was not just some meandering old line from nowhere in particular to somewhere else of little significance, which had succumbed to the "Beeching axe" along with most other such railway lines in the British Isles. Far from it. This old railway line which I was now walking was a section of the old Caledonian main line from Perth to Aberdeen; and it was over this very ground that, in the summer of 1895, the Caledonian's "racing train" had roared through the night, trying to beat its arch-rival the North British Railway to Aberdeen.

The Caledonian was part of the West Coast syndicate (consisting of the London and North Western and the Caledonian Railways), whilst the North British was part of the East Coast Syndicate (consisting of the Great Northern, North Eastern and North British Railways). The Caledonian was based in Glasgow; the North British was based in Edinburgh. Rivalry was inevitable. When the second round of the "Races to the North" broke out in 1895, the battleground was the London to Aberdeen night trains (the first round, in the 1880s, had been about the London to Edinburgh services). The West Coast train left Euston at 8pm; and the East Coast train left King's Cross at the exact same time. The West Coast train was scheduled to arrive in Aberdeen at 8.50 the following morning, with the East Coast train timetabled to arrive 5 minutes later, at 8.55. Yet in the summer of 1895 open warfare broke out between the two consortiums, as both tried to be first to Aberdeen (or, in practice, to Kinnaber Junction; because beyond Kinnaber Junction, both trains ran over the same metals. There could be no overtaking. So whoever was given the road at Kinnaber would be first into Aberdeen.

The companies did not officially admit to racing; but the newspapers soon got wind of the fact that an unofficial contest was being staged, and reported on the progress of the rival trains night by night. Faster and faster they ran their trains, missing out as many intermediate stations as they dared (the North British running a slower relief service, which followed behind to pick up and set down passengers at the stations which the racing train had sped through). The train formations were shortened to just four carriages; and the earliest arrival times achieved at Aberdeen were 4.40 for the East Coast train, and 4.32 for the West Coast train. Why on earth you would want to arrive in Aberdeen at such an hour is anybody's guess; but the point is that in the early hours of the morning, night after night, in the summer of 1895, the famous "Caley single" 4-2-2 no. 123 would have come hurtling along this very embankment, with four West Coast Joint Stock carriages rattling along behind it, at maybe 60 mph (for the racing train did not stop at Forfar, and probably didn't slow at all for the curves) in a desperate bid to beat its North British rival to Kinnaber Junction. Once the newspapers had started reporting on the races, there would have been crowds on the platform at Forfar station most nights to cheer it on its way, despite the uncertainty as to when, exactly, it would be there, and the ungodliness of the hour.

And now? What remains now, to remind us of those exciting times, 120 years ago? An old embankment, a telegraph pole that serves no purpose any longer, the written accounts tucked away in the newspaper archives at St Pancras, and of course the power of our imagination ...

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