Browsing the magazine section at WHSmith in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, I come across ‘Modern Railways‘, one of many UK-based rail mags. Of the lot, its cover is most appealing to me – a special issue on ‘150 years of the Underground‘. Without further ado, I drop a few more quid than planned, and pack it in to my carry-on bag.
Despite my best intentions, the magazine remains there till its time to use the bag again – on a short trip to Bombay i.e. Reading it on the flight out of Delhi, I discover, to my utmost delight, that special runs are planned in London to commemorate the occasion – starting on the 13th of January – the very day I will be transiting through the city again 😉
It is a chilly, gray January morning in London (shocker!) as I make my way from the Tube station to my cousin’s pad in Hampstead. A quick, but rather filling, breakfast in his neighbourhood, and then we’re off on our jaunt – me willingly, him not so!
Scurrying between the Northern Line platforms and those of the sub-surface lines at Moorgate, I glance at my watch – 12:08 – two minutes to departure! Rushing through the final stairwell, I exclaim, ‘I can smell it’. My excitement is contained momentarily by a tensile barrier, as I join hundreds of onlookers, who, like me, haven’t been fortunate enough to get a seat on the coveted train. Regardless, we’ve made it here, and just in time to watch her depart…
The special train is made up of six heritage carriages, to be hauled out of Moorgate by a vintage electric locomotive, with Metropolitan Railway steam locomotive #1 bringing up the rear. Built in Neasden some 115 years ago, and serving the Underground till the 1930s, she is in fine fettle today. For the majority of us onlookers, who’ve never witnessed a steam train on any Underground system, this is a truly momentous occasion!
At precisely ten past noon, the ‘special’ departs in a cloud of smoke, to an all-round applause, and scores of shutter-clicks. Its quintessential coal-smoke aroma lingers on…
And then the chase begins. A westbound Hammersmith & City line train waits on an adjoining platform. It will follow the path of the ‘special’. We hop on. At every stop along the way, hordes of enthusiasts – cameras and notepads in hand – board our train. My cousin glances over to me with an acknowledging look – the kind that says, ‘I suppose you’re not the only crazy one around’!
As we pull into Euston Square, the train operator speaks into the PA system, ‘please don’t be alarmed by the smoke condition in the station – it is simply leftovers from the steam train ahead of us’!
I engage one of the blokes in conversation. Reading off a time-table printout (trust me, I searched hard for one on the internet!), he cautions me that the ‘special’ will only stay at Kensington Olympia for about two minutes before it heads out to the depot. If I were you, he says to me, ‘I would get off this train at Paddington and nip over there in a cab’. And that’s precisely what we do!
The island platform at Kensington Olympia is packed to the rafters with enthusiasts, photographers and clumsily arranged tripods – evidently, the ‘special’ has yet to depart for the depot. From a higher vantage, I scout for a suitable perch for my camera, but there is none to be had – my small frame is no match for the imposing chain link fence!
Determined to get some shots any which way, I place the camera on top of the fence and steady my hand to shoot on ‘blind’ mode! Seconds later, Metropolitan # 1 comes into view, chugging hard, gallantly hauling away its six-carriage train.
A frenzy of clicking follows. History rolls past for a few precious moments, and then its all gone in a blur…
As the trail of smoke dissipates, conversations become hushed, ladders are folded, tripods are collapsed, and camera cases zippered shut. The trainspotters have called it ‘a wrap’!
Meanwhile, on Kensington High Street, time seems to have stood still. We stroll past the showroom for Bristol cars, a vintage car manufacturer, and only a few yards ahead, stumble upon two lovingly kept, and rather strategically placed, Routemasters – the pride and joy of the city’s bus fleet.
After a long walk in the damp cold – part of it spent finding our destination – we duck into the appropriately named Britannia Pub & Dining Room, located just off the high street. It provides us, amongst other things, some much needed warmth, a hearty Sunday Roast, a Cloudy Cider, and in keeping with the theme for the day, a cozy coal-burning fire place 😉
2:3o pm – time to start making my way to the airport. As we step out of the pub and head towards the high street, the sun makes a brief appearance, bathing the neighborhood in a warm glow. Couldn’t possibly ask for more in London town, could you?
Alighting at Heathrow Central, I glance at the carriage’s footboard – ‘Metro Cammell 1973′ – four decades of reliable service on the Piccadilly line and still going strong! Much like the world’s favourite Underground, 150 years on…
For more pictures from the steam run, click here.