(The images shown are not directly related to the story, but illustrate the units in the area at the time.)
For various reasons, from the mid to late 1970s onwards I developed a liking for the DMUs of North Wales, particularly the Chester-based 101 units. By the year 2000, it was clear that the chance to ride 101s in that part of the world would not be around indefinitely, so I ought to have one last fling. “Rail Express” magazine had very considerately published details of the diagrammed workings of the 101s then in service, so I consulted these and formulated a plan.
My selected day was 25th May 2000, and I awoke to discover that it looked as if it was going to be a fine day, but also that I had slept through my alarm clock’s wake-up call. The plan was already in jeopardy and I had not yet left home! I set out anyway and conclusively proved that it is possible to get from the Royston area to Watford Junction in a 1000cc Austin Metro through the morning rush hour in around 45 minutes. Of course, I arrived in the car park just as my planned train to Crewe was leaving from Platform 6.
The original plan had been to catch an Inter-City to Crewe, then get a DMU (Sprinter generation) to Llandudno Junction, where I could lay in wait for my first 101 of the day. Consultation of the timetables revealed there was a short wait at Watford for a Liverpool-bound Inter-City that would get me to Crewe, and then I could see what turned up there. The Virgin liveried Class 90 got me to Crewe on time and I was pleased to discover that instead of a Sprinter DMU, there was a Class 37-hauled train that connected. 37 415 in EWS livery hauled three early Mark 2s and a Mark 1, all in Regional Railways colours, across the North Wales coast and got me to Llandudno Junction with a perfect connection for my planned 101.
Set 101 677 pulled in to the station, formed of 51179 and 51496, obviously in Regional Railways livery and still branded as such. To me, 51496 has an association with Bradford Hammerton Street depot, where it was part of a power-twin. 51179 was highly appropriate as it had been Chester based in the 1970s and early 80s. It stuck in my mind when I saw it on the Cambrian Coast line in August 1980, on our family holiday, due to its minor collision damage. Something had bent the secondman’s corner of the cab and then left a gouge almost as far back as the first passenger vestibule. The cab corner itself had a plate riveted over the damage, while the cab door had obviously been claimed from a blue liveried car; although it was painted in the white/blue stripe “refurbished” livery to match the rest of the vehicle, the word “private” was not on the blue stripe, but instead on a blue patch on the white area above the stripe. (Please forgive my occasional memory for detail, but as I said above, I was addicted to Chester 101s!)
In accordance with my plan, I rode on this unit as the 10.38 Llandudno Junction – Blaenau Ffestiniog, along with a few other DMU enthusiasts, or at least interested members of the public, departing from there at 11.45 and coming all the way through to Llandudno. I left there again at 13.25 on this same set, and rode as far as Llandudno Junction.
At the Junction, I found the other 101 in North Wales that day, 101 680 formed 53204 and 53163. I must have first met 53204 somewhere on the Eastern Region, while my first encounter with 53163 was at Edinburgh Waverley in March 1981. At that time, BR had a very useful promotion on Student Railcards; once you had bought the Railcard, a part of the application form was officially stamped; this was laid out like a travel ticket and all you had to do was enter start and finish points and the date of travel. Watford Junction to Edinburgh, free of charge, then…
In March 1981, 50163 was still in BR blue livery and still had evidence of the middle and top marker lights that had been removed and plated over. During the latter half of the 1980s, 53163 was notable as being one of the two 101 triple sets with “Bathgate Link” branding, following the recent reopening of that line. When I rode in it in May 2000, I noted that the ex First Class still had curtain rails and pelmets in place and that the cab still bore a copy of the Scottish Region Fault Guide notice!
I left the Junction aboard 101 680 at 13.39 and went back to Llandudno. After a lunch break, I was able to catch this same unit as the 14.50 departure back to the Junction, where it reversed and set off for Holyhead. Upon arrival at the port, it did not take a lot of time to turn ‘680 round as the 16.12 departure back to Llandudno. Here I had some time to kill, in accordance with the plan, so I went off to the yard of Alpine Travel to indulge in my interest in old buses.
The climax of the day was the 19.00 Llandudno to Crewe, formed of 101 677. I made sure that I got the best seat, namely right behind the cab on the secondman’s side of 51179; the former Chester car! As I had hoped for, a storming run was provided across North Wales and in to Cheshire, with the speedo on 70 mph for a lot of the time. At Chester, a brief sighting was that of 101 681, 51228 and 51506. The former was another old friend from Scotland, as I recall, while the latter had been in use at Neville Hill for a while, although I had more exposure to 51506 after it moved to Norwich and was formed into a “TBSL” triple set with RETB signalling for use between Ipswich and Lowestoft.
Returning to my Welsh 101 tribute, I have to admit that I was smiling like one of the local Cheshire cats upon arrival at Crewe! In spite of a wobbly start to the day, I have to admit that the plan worked. There was still the minor obstacle of returning to Watford Junction, but a Virgin liveried 86 got me to Stafford, where there was time for a quick fast food break, then an Inter-City liveried 90 got me home. At least the Austin Metro had a slightly less stressful journey that night than it did that morning!
As an aside, just over a year after this trip I joined a model railway group that is building a model of Mostyn, on the North Wales main line, as it was in 1977. Having sped through there in 101 677, I was now advising them on the DMUs for the layout.
After bidding farewell to the 101s in Wales in such style, I did not have another ride on one until the First North Western tour in December 2003, another enjoyable day with plenty of high speed running.